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The Americans with Disabilities Act and Prison Conditions

  • Published: 2013-08-04 (Revised/Updated 2016-10-29) : Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Facilities covered by Title II of the ADA including detention and correction facilities are required to make services and programs or activities accessible to people with disabilities

Main Document

Quote: "The percentage of people with intellectual disabilities who are found guilty of crimes due to a variety of reason is disproportionate to people without disabilities in the general population."

People with disabilities often face some of the toughest conditions in prisons and jails in America.

At the start of the year 2006, state prisons held 1,259,905 inmates in their custody and local jails held 766,010.

Including the numbers of people who were either on parole or probation, or who were in federal prisons, the number of people in America's correctional system totaled more than 7 million, a population very worthy of note.

As with other facilities that are covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), detention and correction facilities are required to make their services, programs, and activities accessible to people with disabilities.

The operations that must be accessible include:

  • Jobs
  • Education
  • Phone calls
  • Commissary
  • Fingerprinting
  • Drug treatment
  • Religious services
  • Confinement level
  • Visitation programs
  • Anger management
  • Appropriate classification
  • Housing and cell assignment
  • Medical and mental health services
  • Sexual offender treatment programs
  • Work release and early release programs
  • Initial medical and mental health screening
  • Access to toilets, showers, food, and recreation

Chart showing ADA required prison programs/services
About This Image: Chart showing ADA required prison programs/services
Each year, the Department receives more than 1,600 complaints from inmates in local and state facilities alleging discrimination on the basis of the disabilities they experience. The, 'Justice Project,' was an initiative created in the year 2004 to investigate and hopefully resolve such complaints. Inmates with disabilities allege a number of ADA violations at local and state correctional and detention facilities. The most common types of complaints involve:

  • Denial of access to disability-related devices and medical services
  • Denial of access/unequal access to the facility's activities and programs
  • Lack of effective communication for inmates who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, or have low vision

Complaints Regarding Access

Several inmate complaints allege a lack of accessible cells, showers, and toilets - as well as sidewalks with steep slopes and steps or floors that prevent inmates with mobility disabilities from accessing essential areas to include libraries, dining halls, or medical facilities. Other inmates with disabilities allege a lack of assistance for those who need assistance with activities of daily living such as showering, toileting, or feeding. Some inmates with disabilities have received no assistance with toileting and have remained soiled for extended periods of time.

Inmates who take medication in order to treat forms of mental illnesses are excluded from participation in drug treatment programs that are required to become eligible for parole. Other inmates with disabilities find themselves excluded from job assignments, something that prevents them from earning good-time credits that would qualify them for early release. In some facilities, inmates with disabilities are housed in the infirmary and are segregated from inmates in the general population, unable to participate in the activities and programs that are available to other inmates. Visitors with disabilities face difficulties as well due to a lack of accessible parking, entrances and visitation areas.

Complaints Concerning Medical Devices and Services

Chart showing ADA required devices in prisons
About This Image: Chart showing ADA required devices in prisons
Local and state government agencies are not usually required to provide personal devices for citizens with disabilities. Jails and prisons; however, are required to provide necessary devices such as:

  • Canes
  • Walkers
  • Catheters
  • Eyeglasses
  • Urine bags
  • Wheelchairs
  • Hearing aids
  • Necessary medications
  • Prescribed orthopedic shoes

A failure to provide these devices, equipment, or medications is a frequent complaint made by inmates - especially from inmates who experience forms of psychiatric disabilities. Inmates with diabetes have also complained of an inability to test their blood sugar levels, or to receive an appropriate diet as prescribed by doctors in prisons.

Complaints Regarding Effective Communication

Inmates who experience speech and hearing disabilities have complained about a lack of TTY's and policies that limit the length of their telephone calls, something that denies them an equal opportunity to communicate with family members and friends because TTY's work in a way that takes longer than average phone calls. Inmates with hearing disabilities have been denied sign language interpreters for classification interviews, crucial medical appointments, as well as required classes and treatment programs. They have missed, 'pill call,' medical appointments, or even meals because these events are only announced verbally. A number of inmates with vision disabilities are denied access to tape players and books on tape, or even large print or Braille reading materials - even though they are available at no cost through the Library of Congress.

Actions Taken by the Justice Project

Funding through the Office of Justice Programs finds the Justice Project conducting investigations ranging from individual complaints from an inmate to more comprehensive ADA compliance reviews of all prisons and prison programs in the states. Along with providing relief to large numbers of inmates with disabilities in jails and prisons such as modifications to provide physical access to cells, showers, toilets, dining areas, or adoption of ADA-compliant effective communications policies, the Justice Project has obtained relief for a number of individual inmates. Examples of inmate relief include:

  • TTY's for inmates, staff members, and visitors
  • Access to work release programs and jobs for inmates with psychiatric disabilities
  • A treatment program in an accessible place for an inmate with a mobility disability
  • Talking books, magnifiers, tape recorders, and Braille writers for inmates with vision disabilities
  • A prosthetic leg for an inmate that allowed him to live in the general population instead of in the infirmary
  • Aides to assist an inmate without arms in eating and activities of daily living and to assist an inmate who uses a wheelchair to move around the prison
  • Changes in policy allowing an inmate with a disability to be considered for a trustee job, permitting a mother who uses an oxygen tank to visit her inmate son, and allowing a blind inmate to touch his children's faces during visits
  • Sign language interpreters to assist a deaf inmate to participate in educational programs, another deaf inmate to participate in a treatment program required for release, and another deaf inmate to participate in required meetings with probation officers

The percentage of people with intellectual disabilities who are found guilty of crimes due to a variety of reason is disproportionate to people without disabilities in the general population. Until the legal system in America finds ways to work with this population, as well as with other populations of people with disabilities, in ways that do not find them incarcerated - the jails and prisons in this nation are going to have to continue working to accommodate inmates with disabilities. A number of people with disabilities in America find themselves behind bars due to a lack of understanding that they are participating in a crime with a criminal they have become involved with.

Resources and Citations:

A Guide to Litigation Under the Americans with Disabilities Act in Prisons and Jails

Although the Supreme Court held in Pennsylvania Dept. of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206 (1998) that the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") applies to prisons and jails, people with disabilities in correctional facilities still face tremendous obstacles in their efforts to achieve fair and equal treatment. Since these institutions control virtually every aspect of the lives of the individuals who must inhabit them, the types of barriers and discrimination they face are varied and pervasive.

The Americans with Disabilities Act Applies to Local Jails and Prisoners

Ronald Yeskey was a prison inmate sentenced to 18 to 36 months in a Pennsylvania correctional facility. The sentencing court recommended his placement in Pennsylvania's Motivational Boot Camp for first-time offenders. Successful completion would have led to release on parole in just six months. Because he had a medical history of hypertension, admission to the program was denied. He sued, alleging that his exclusion violated the ADA.

Deaf In Prison: Prison Life and the Americans With Disabilities Act

There are two major problems with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Primarily, it is technically obsolete. The act predates the Internet, so it doesn't provide for such essential services as videophone interpreting. Most Deaf can't use TTY phones, because they involve typing, which brings us back to the initial communication problems.

Related Information:

  1. Study on Crime Against Persons with Disabilities - Persons with disabilities experienced higher rates of violence than persons of similar ages without disabilities - U.S. Department of Justice - Oct 02, 2009
  2. Disability and Personal Safety - Decreasing Possibility You Will be Affected by Crime - Following these steps for personal safety can decrease the possibility that you will be affected by crime - Wendy Taormina-Weiss - Oct 20, 2011
  3. The Fading of Disability Civil and Human Rights In America - The rights of People with Disabilities, Americas largest minority population are fading at an unprecedented rate - Thomas C. Weiss - Jan 09, 2011

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