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Lawsuit Targets State Treatment Of Disabled Inmates

Prisoners crowding around a table
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A group representing prisoners with disabilities is accusing the Florida Department of Corrections of failing to comply with a settlement reached in a federal lawsuit about discrimination against inmates who are deaf, blind or use wheelchairs. 

Under the settlement finalized in June 2017, the state agreed, among other things, to provide sign-language interpreters for deaf prisoners and to remove architectural barriers for inmates who use wheelchairs.

But two years after a federal judge signed off on the settlement, Disability Rights Florida, Inc. is back in court suing the prisons agency for breach of contract over the agreement, which forced the state to comply with laws protecting disabled people.

“Florida prisoners with physical disabilities are still suffering from the lack of accommodations, aid and services and are still being excluded from FDC (Florida Department of Corrections) programs, services and activities because of their disabilities,” attorneys representing the group wrote in the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Leon County circuit court.

Disability Rights Florida, a federally funded agency, is being represented by the Morgan & Morgan law firm and the Florida Justice Institute, which represented the organization in the original challenge.

The initial lawsuit, filed in 2016, detailed issues involving more than two-dozen inmates who were deaf, blind or needed wheelchairs or prosthetic devices but who were repeatedly denied services or assistance and were threatened with retaliation for complaining. Some inmates were also excluded from jobs because of their disabilities, according to the complaint.

Since the settlement, the nonprofit Disability Rights Florida and its lawyers “have been diligently monitoring” the corrections department’s compliance with the settlement by interviewing prisoners, reviewing records and attending meetings with agency staff members, according to the new lawsuit.

The monitoring efforts “have uncovered serious violations of the agreement,” and Disability Rights Florida, “consistently communicated the nature of these violations … and has repeatedly requested FDC to come into compliance,” the group’s lawyers wrote.

“Yet FDC has failed to do so. After over two years of these discussions, DRF (Disability Rights Florida) has been left with no choice but to bring this lawsuit in order to bring FDC into compliance,” the lawyers wrote in the 34-page complaint.

Disability Rights Florida notified the corrections agency in February that the state was out of compliance with the settlement, according to the lawsuit. The notice “contained sufficient detail” for corrections officials to investigate the problems and rectify them, the lawsuit said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said Wednesday the agency had not been served with the lawsuit. But she said the department "has been working collaboratively with Disability Rights Florida over the last three years to ensure compliance with the identified ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues at our facilities."

The agency "sent a proposed corrective action plan to address DRFs (Disability Rights Florida’s) concerns and will continue to make the necessary improvements agreed to," Glady added

The alleged breaches of the settlement include failing to provide qualified interpreters and hearing aids for deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates; failing to make architectural modifications to prisons to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; and confiscating or failing to provide wheelchairs, canes, walkers or other devices for prisoners who have mobility impairments.

Among other issues, it alleges the department failed to provide interpreters at some prisons for deaf prisoners attending education programs, substance abuse programs, work and job training and religious services.

In addition, “no interpreters were provided at all for intake and orientation services” at the corrections department’s five reception centers in 2019, the lawyers wrote, labeling the failure a “significant breach” of the agreement.

“Interpreters are a critical accommodation at reception centers. The reception center is the first facility a prisoner is sent to as they enter the state prison system, and it is there where they undergo comprehensive screening, along with possible medical care,” the lawyers wrote. At least 13 prisoners who needed American Sign Language interpreters were processed without being evaluated by a qualified interpreter, according to the lawsuit.

“FDC’s failure to provide interpreters is systemic and widespread and not limited to isolated incidents,” the lawsuit alleges.

The disability-rights group and corrections officials met on May 20 to discuss the alleged breaches of the settlement but “did not reach an agreement on how to resolve the various violations,” according to the lawsuit.

On Oct. 11, after several written exchanges, the prisons agency provided a response in which it proposed corrective actions for the deficiencies.

But the agency’s plan only proposed action on seven of the 19 items presented by Disability Rights Florida, according to the lawsuit.

“The corrective action proposed by FDC is inadequate to address the scope of the continued breach of the agreement in each of those areas,” the organization’s lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit also accuses corrections officials of coding at least 30 prisoners as having lesser impairments than they should have, “resulting in them being denied accommodations,” which amounts to another significant breach of the agreement, the lawsuit alleges.

As a result of being improperly coded or taken off a list of impaired inmates, prisoners have been denied placement in dorms that have accommodations for people with disabilities and have been denied wheelchairs, canes, walkers, braces, glasses, magnifiers, talking books and other items, the lawsuit alleges.

Some deaf prisoners who had been using hearing aids for years before the agreement went into effect were improperly coded as having a lesser impairment “and have subsequently been denied hearing aids,” the group’s lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit also accuses the department of improperly denying prisoners with disabilities access to work, vocational and educational programs.

Most prisoners with physical disabilities “have been assigned to be ‘housemen’ rather than being given other, more desirable and stimulating job assignments without assessing where reasonable modifications could be made. The responsibilities of ‘housemen’ generally involve cleaning the dormitory,” the lawsuit said.