Law in Action: Getting Equality in Prison

In my last post, I spoke generally about the rights of disabled detainees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, (“ADA”), and Rehabilitation Act. In this post, I want to highlight some recent settlements that enforced these rights. These examples are just a slice of what is possible, but they give a snapshot of the ADA in action. One case was brought by the government on behalf of individuals, while the others were by private citizens. The law allows either method; individuals are always entitled to enforce their rights.

In Holmes et al. v. Godinez et Al., a class of deaf and hearing-impaired detainees filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”), alleging that IDOC violated Title II of the ADA. Specifically, the class alleged IDOC failed to provide American Sign Language interpreters, or alternate forms of communication, to deaf and hard of hearing inmates.  This failure denied inmates access to educational and religious services, healthcare, and day to day activities like TV and the library. 

Last year, the parties reached a settlement. IDOC agreed to make changes to accommodate those with a hearing disability. For example, each facility housing a deaf inmate must have at least 1 video phone, 2 teletype phones, and 2 sound amplified phones. In addition, IDOC must provide hearing aids to qualified detainees, and sign language interpretation to those detainees who need it.  This settlement ensures those with hearing disabilities access to many aspects of the prison system that they didn’t have before, including health care, and access to grievance procedures.

Next I’d like to discuss a recent settlement involving Hawaii’s prison furlough program. Three inmates complained to the Department of Justice, (“DOJ”), citing the state’s failure to provide disabled inmates with equal access to its various furlough programs, including work-release. The DOJ investigated these claims and concluded that the furlough program violated title II of the ADA because the program “excluded qualified individuals with mobility disabilities from its furlough program, or participation therein, by reason of their disabilities.…”  The investigation also concluded that Hawaii’s public safety facilities violated the ADA by creating architectural barriers for inmates with mobility disabilities. 

In March 2019, the parties reached a settlement in which the Hawaii Department of Public Safety agreed to make changes to its furlough and work release programs, so that they would not discriminate against detainees with “mobility disabilities.” Specifically, they agreed to provide a range of work release opportunities in order to expand the range of opportunities for disabled detainees. It further agreed that where an inmate’s disability makes them unable to participate in any work furlough, they should still be permitted access to other available furlough programs, even those that would normally require work furlough as a prerequisite. The language of the agreement states:

“HDPS will ensure that inmates with mobility disabilities are given a range of potential work furlough programming, including work assignments with varying physical requirements (i.e., from sedentary clerical tasks to manual labor). If an inmate encounters barriers to participation because of a mobility disability, HDPS will conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether there are reasonable accommodations or modifications that would permit the inmate to participate in work furlough, i.e., perform the essential functions of the job.”

In addition to changes in the programs, the settlement included monetary compensation for the complainants totaling $42,000. This agreement illustrates a key point. Correctional departments must reasonably accommodate their programs so that disabled detainees may have access to them. States must do what they can to give detainees equal treatment. The settlement also resolves the architectural violations, which I will discuss in a future post. 

In Brown v. Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the State of Maryland agreed to a settlement with eight blind inmates. In their complaint, the plaintiffs cited numerous ADA violations, including a lack of access to accessible forms, insufficient access to private communication, and policies that left them vulnerable to other detainees. In addition to damages and attorney fees of $1,400,000, the Maryland Department of Public Safety agreed to several accommodations, including providing access to computers with text to speech software, (software that reads a computer screen, allowing blind inmates to be independent), and screening individuals who served as readers or scribes to make sure blind inmates weren’t being placed in dangerous situations. 

These three cases are just a small sampling of how we can use the law and the legal system to ensure that those with disabilities are treated with dignity and equality in all settings – including correctional facilities. 


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