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ADA Settlement at Washington Special Commitment Center

By Hank Balson

In December 2000, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) settled a lawsuit brought by seven disabled residents of the Washington Special Commitment Center (SCC), the state's civil commitment facility to confine sex offenders who have been released from prison. The lawsuit raised claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment.

The plaintiffs filed their complaint pro se in March 1999 to challenge conditions for SCC residents with disabilities. At the time, many of SCC's services, programs and activities were being conducted in inaccessible spaces. For instance, residents who could not climb stairs were excluded from the SCC dining hall, the SCC gym, the SCC hobby/craft room, the SCC music room, and the law library. Residents in wheelchairs could not get to treatment classes because the ramp leading to the treatment building was nearly twice as steep as the maximum slope allowed under the ADA too steep to safely traverse in a wheelchair.

In addition, defendants failed to address the needs of hearing impaired and mobility impaired residents in the areas of emergency evacuations, escort and transport procedures, and communications.

Another issue raised in the lawsuit concerned the emergency health care needs of SCC residents with serious heart conditions. Although SCC is under the jurisdiction of DSHS, the program is housed at a DOC prison, the McNeil Island Corrections Center.

DOC has a policy against housing prisoners with serious heart conditions on McNeil Island. However, SCC residents with such conditions are routinely confined on the island, placing them at serious risk for harm in an emergency. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit was forced to languish in pain for over four hours while he was having a heart attack, unable to be evacuated from the island due to weather conditions.

The settlement requires the defendants to take several actions to accommodate the plaintiffs' needs, including the following:

Ø Install a mechanical lift to the SCC dining hall;

Ø Rebuild the ramp to the treatment building to make it wheelchair accessible;

Ø Provide integrated gym, hobby, and music activities in accessible locations;

Ø Implement a meaningful ADA complaint resolution procedure;

Ø Provide accessible transport for SCC residents with mobility impairments;

Ø Train staff in safe escort procedures for residents with disabilities;

Ø Communicate personally announcements made over the public address system to residents with hearing impairments;

Ø Improve access to law library materials for residents who cannot get to the law library;

Ø Develop a plan for assisting disabled residents in emergency evacuations and train staff in implementing the plan;

Ø Increase the availability of equipment and trained staff to respond to cardiac emergencies on the island.

In addition, defendants are required to pay attorney fees and costs of approximately $230,000.

Attorneys from Columbia Legal Services, who have represented the plaintiffs since January 2000, will monitor defendants' compliance with the settlement order until January 2002.

See: St. Germaine, et al. v. Ouasim, et al., US DC, WD WA, Case No. C995134FDB (settlement order unpublished).

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Related legal case

St. Germaine, et. al. v. Ouasim, et. al.