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DOJ Releases ADA Advisory Report

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12131-12134, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled by state and local government entities. The ADA applies to criminal justice agencies, including prisons and jails. The Department of Justice (DOJ) is one of eight federal agencies charged with enforcing the ADA and has issued its report: The Americans With Disabilities Act and Criminal Justice: Providing Inmate Services, which gives an excellent, comprehensive overview of what accommodations to the disabled must be provided by state agencies. The ADA allows citizens to privately sue agencies for money damages and injunctive relief in order to ensure compliance with the ADA. As PLN has reported in the past, this private right of action applies to prisoners and jail detainees as well. See: Noland v. Wheatley, 835 F. Supp. 476 (ND IN 1993).

The DOJ report gives a legal overview of the ADA's requirements as applied to prison programs and advice aimed mainly at prison administrators on how to comply with the ADA and thus avoid violating its provisions. This includes identifying prisoners with disabilities during intake classification and ensuring that an evaluation of existing prison programs is made, then modified to comply with the ADA.

The main areas covered are developing policies and procedures, architectural barriers and communications. The ADA does not require prisons to retrofit all existing facilities to a new ADA standard. What it does require is a prison operate each service, program, or activity that it offers so that viewed in its entirety the service, program or activity is readily accessible to and usable by, disabled individuals. This standard, known as "program access," applies to all new construction and alterations to existing structures. The report lists alternative means of ensuring program access. Prisons must ensure that its communications with the disabled (i.e. sight or hearing impaired) are as effective as those with the non-disabled. This may include sign language interpreters, qualified readers, etc. The report emphasizes the need for prison administrators to develop written policies addressing these matters before the need for them actually arises.

The report contains many commonly asked questions about the ADA and how to ensure its compliance. The report notes that the ADA also applies to prison employees, attorneys, clergy and visitors to the prison (i.e. family members) who may have a disability. Anyone interested in this issue should ask for a free copy from: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Washington D.C. 20531.

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