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Florida Prisons Sued Over Treatment Of Disabled Inmates

Prison corridor with inmates in distance
Associated Press
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A group representing disabled inmates has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Florida prison officials of discriminating against prisoners who are deaf, blind or confined to wheelchairs, in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Tallahassee by Disability Rights Florida, alleges that the Department of Corrections failed to provide interpreters and auxiliary aids, prosthetic devices and wheelchairs, and assistants and tapping canes to inmates with disabilities.

The lawsuit also accuses corrections officials of discriminating against disabled inmates by refusing to allow them to participate in services and programs available to other prisoners.

The ADA violations cause prisoners "to suffer from the humiliation, indignity, and difficulties that accompany such exclusion" and also violate prisoners' constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process, lawyers for the Florida Justice Institute and the Morgan and Morgan law firm wrote in the 123-page complaint.

The lawyers spent two years investigating complaints from inmates before filing the lawsuit on Tuesday, according to a press release. Disability Rights Florida is asking a judge for an emergency injunction forcing the corrections department to comply with the ADA.

Corrections officials knew about the alleged violations laid out in the complaint but failed to correct them, "thereby exhibiting deliberate indifference to the rights of individuals" in their custody, the lawyers argued.

"The laws guaranteeing equal access are there to ensure that the dignity and independence of people with disabilities are respected," Disability Rights Florida Executive Director Maryellen McDonald said in the release. "When those laws are not followed, not only do they result in a lack of access, but people with disabilities can suffer from the humiliation, indignity, and injuries that accompany it. Our organization is seeking to vindicate those principles for the incarcerated people of Florida."

A spokesman for the corrections department said agency officials could not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit details the complaints of 32 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.

According to the lawsuit, the inmates' plights are representative of discrimination experienced by other disabled prisoners.

The lawsuit lays out a plethora of woes encountered by deaf inmates. In some instances, deaf prisoners have waited years for their hearing aids to be repaired or replaced and have been not been provided American Sign Language interpreters for critical events such as medical appointments. Some deaf inmates are forced to serve as interpreters for other prisoners during doctors' visits, possibly violating federal privacy laws. Special telephones for the hearing-impaired are often broken or unavailable, the lawyers wrote, and deaf prisoners can't hear announcements, causing them to miss "critical events" such as meals.

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.

Corrections officials also failed to provide or maintain wheelchairs to other inmates, who are thus "denied the minimal necessities of civilized life," the lawsuit alleges. Prison officials have also failed to assign other inmates --- known as "pushers" --- to wheelchair-bound prisoners, who are often unable to navigate the prison grounds on their own because the facilities are not ADA-compliant.

Handicapped showers and toilets were frequently unavailable for the wheelchair-bound inmates named in the complaint, according to the lawsuit.

Inmate David Belle, who is missing both feet and uses two artificial limbs, did not have access to a handicapped shower, the complaint alleges. Belle has to "jump out of his wheelchair and shower on the floor while balancing on his knees," a process that is "degrading and humiliating," lawyers for the federally funded Disability Rights Florida wrote.

The "stress of having a disability while incarcerated" caused Belle to lose 55 pounds in 18 months, according to the complaint.

Another inmate went a month without a shower because the shower wasn't ADA-compliant, the complaint alleges.

Prison officials took away Richard Jackson's wheelchair when he was put into solitary confinement at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. The prisoner, who was forced to "drag himself across the dirty and abrasive cell floor," sued the department and eventually settled for "substantial damages" and lawyers' fees, according to the complaint.

Prisoner Christopher Villanueva, who went without a prosthetic leg for two years, also reached a settlement with the agency after suing.

Corrections officials have also refused to cooperate with U.S. Department of Justice officials regarding the treatment of disabled inmates, the lawsuit alleges. For two years, officials with the federal agency have been trying to get permission from the Department of Corrections to conduct on-site inspections, to no avail, according to the complaint.

Justice officials in June threatened to sue the corrections agency, but state officials still have not allowed the visits, the complaint alleges.