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Sweeping Settlement Covers Medical and Mental Health Care at Wisconsin Women’s Prison

On August 23, 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of Wisconsin filed a settlement agreement in U.S. District Court that will improve medical and mental health care and conditions of confinement for disabled prisoners at the only women’s maximum-security facility in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC).

The settlement stemmed from a class-action civil rights suit filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Kristine Flynn, Debbie Ann Ramos, Lenda Flournoy and Vernessia L. Parker, state prisoners incarcerated at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI), filed the lawsuit on May 1, 2006. They alleged inadequate medical, dental and mental health care in violation of the Eighth Amendment, as well as the lack of an inpatient psychiatric treatment facility and access to other services for disabled prisoners in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.34; Jan. 2007, p.20].

The district court subsequently certified a class consisting of “all prisoners who are now or in the future will be confined at TCI,” plus a subclass of all class members with disabilities. During litigation and discovery, the plaintiffs’ attorneys reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of DOC documents. The plaintiffs dropped their claims related to dental care, then entered into mediation that resulted in the settlement agreement.

The settlement requires TCI to hire a full-time physician as the facility’s medical director; have a correctional health care expert audit TCI at least twice a year and file a report on the prison’s compliance with the agreement; obtain accreditation by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care; have credentialed staff at the licensed practical nurse level or higher dispense controlled medications; build an annex for out-of-cell therapy and individual therapy for prisoners needing mental health care; and open the planned Wisconsin Women’s Resource Center for the provision of inpatient psychiatric services by June 1, 2012.

Other provisions of the settlement include providing hearing-impaired prisoners with qualified sign language interpreters, and providing vision-impaired prisoners with reading assistants, Braille materials and/or other accommodations to facilitate their access to such basic services as medical and mental health care, disciplinary and grievance hearings, treatment and educational programs, and evaluation tests used to assign prisoners to classes or programs. The settlement further requires access to adaptive hearing devices to facilitate phone calls, so as to allow hearing-impaired prisoners equal access to and longer times for calls, and the use of visual alerts to notify hearing-impaired prisoners of count times, emergencies and announcements. Closed captioning must be available on all TCI televisions.

TCI must also maintain pathways and walkways between buildings in sufficient repair for use by mobility-impaired prisoners. Obstructions, impediments and safety hazards for mobility-impaired prisoners must be clearly marked, and wheelchair-pushing mobility assistants are to be trained with an emphasis on safety. Mobility-impaired prisoners must be allowed to dine at the same time and place as non-disabled prisoners, but may be required to commit in advance to eating meals in the cafeteria.

TCI must consider whether a prisoner’s disability prevented compliance with institutional rules in the event of disciplinary action. Prison officials must also conduct a study comparing cells in medium-security units to aid in future cell construction or retrofitting of existing cells so they are more accessible for disabled prisoners.

The plaintiffs were ably represented by Wisconsin ACLU Legal Director Laurence J. Dupuis of Milwaukee; ACLU National Prison Project attorneys Gabriel B. Eber and David C. Fathi of Washington, D.C.; and Chicago attorneys Genevieve J. Essig, Keri Holleb Hotaling and Robert L. Graham.

“Today’s settlement is a real victory for all female prisoners at TCI who will no longer have to suffer needlessly in a system that fails to comply with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution,” said Eber. “This settlement will lead to dramatic improvements in the quality of health care prisoners will receive.”

“The health care system at TCI has been in crisis for years and today’s settlement agreement is a monumental step toward achieving much-needed improvements and accountability,” added Dupuis. “The measures that will be put in place will have a positive impact not only on the prisoners at TCI but also on the communities to which prisoners will return upon release.”

The district court held a fairness hearing on December 2, 2010 and approved the class-action settlement the same day. On December 14, 2010, the court ordered the defendants to pay plaintiffs’ attorney fees in the amount of $950,000. The district court retained jurisdiction to enforce the terms of the settlement. See: Flynn v. Doyle, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:06-cv-00537-RTR.

Additional source: ACLU press release

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Related legal case

Flynn v. Doyle