BY DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE – In a move that could affect thousands of Florida inmates, attorneys representing disabled prisoners and the Department of Corrections have settled a lawsuit accusing the state of discriminating against prisoners who are deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs.
The lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Florida and alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also accused corrections officials of discriminating against disabled inmates by refusing to allow them to participate in services and programs available to other prisoners.
Years to comply
Under the 328-page settlement finalized on July 7, the state has agreed, among other things, to provide sign-language interpreters for deaf prisoners and to remove architectural barriers for inmates who use wheelchairs.
The state will have four years to comply with federal laws protecting disabled individuals, under the agreement.
Lawyer Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, called the settlement “a huge decision” for incarcerated people with disabilities. Berg’s organization, along with the Morgan & Morgan law firm, represented more than 30 inmates in the lawsuit filed last year.
“It will be a game changer for them,” Berg said during a telephone interview Monday when asked about the impact on disabled prisoners.
Americans with Disabilities Act violations caused prisoners “to suffer from the humiliation, indignity, and difficulties that accompany such exclusion” and violated prisoners’ constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process, Berg and the other lawyers wrote in a 123-page complaint filed last year.
Florida Department of Corrections officials on Monday also hailed the settlement.
“We are glad that we have reached an agreement. FDC (the Department of Corrections) will continue to ensure that all in our custody receive proper care and treatment,” spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email.
Glady also noted that the agency is “continually working on ensuring our facilities are within federal ADA compliance.”
The agency has a “designated ADA coordinator” and “has already begun to work on many of the identified issues within existing funding,” Glady said.
The lawsuit detailed the plights of more than two dozen inmates who are deaf, blind or need wheelchairs or prosthetic devices but who were repeatedly denied services or assistance and who were threatened with retaliation for complaining.
Some inmates were also excluded from jobs because of their disabilities, according to the complaint.
The complaint laid out a plethora of woes encountered by deaf inmates.
In some instances, deaf prisoners waited years for their hearing aids to be repaired or replaced and were not provided American Sign Language interpreters for critical events such as medical appointments.
Some deaf inmates were forced to serve as interpreters for other prisoners during doctors’ visits, possibly violating federal privacy laws.
Special telephones for the hearing-impaired were often broken or unavailable, the lawyers wrote, and deaf prisoners couldn’t hear announcements, causing them to miss “critical events” such as meals.
Lack of wheelchairs
For example, inmate David Stanley, who is deaf, had his hearing aid sent out for repair in 2009 and “has been without one for much of the time since then,” the lawyers wrote in last year’s complaint.
Corrections officials also failed to provide or maintain wheelchairs to other inmates, who are thus “denied the minimal necessities of civilized life,” the lawsuit alleged.
Prison officials also failed to assign other inmates – known as “pushers” – to wheelchair-bound prisoners, who were often unable to navigate the prison grounds on their own because the facilities were not ADA compliant.
Months of mediation
The settlement agreement came after five months of mediation between representatives of the inmates and the state, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Under the settlement, corrections officials agreed to house disabled inmates in about 20 prisons that are ADA compliant.
Inmates who need services will have to be evaluated when they enter the corrections system and be reevaluated annually.
The agreement also should provide disabled inmates “with some modicum of ability to take courses, do programs, and get religious services on the same level as persons who do not have any disabilities,” Berg said.