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AVID Prison Project Report Details Challenges Faced by Disabled Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

Last year, Disability Rights Washington's AVID (Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities) Prison Project published a report titled “Making Hard Time Harder: Programmatic Accommodations for Inmates with Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

The report, released on June 22, 2016, detailed many of the significant challenges faced by disabled prisoners. As noted by AVID, “People with disabilities in state and federal prison are generally protected by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the [Rehabilitation] Act.” The ADA (42 U.S.C. § 12131) applies to prisoners in state facilities, while § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 U.S.C. § 794(a)) applies to both federal and state prisons.

The needs of disabled prisoners are becoming increasingly significant, AVID notes, because many in the aging U.S. prison population are suffering some form of disability and there has been “a rise in the number of people with mental illness and developmental and cognitive disabilities.”

According to U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics, there are 1,561,500 state and federal prisoners in the U.S., of whom 31% have some form of disability.

Statistics also show that disabled prisoners serve, on average, fifteen additional months compared to those with no disabilities who have committed similar offenses. Disabilities often prevent prisoners from receiving educational programming and may result in disciplinary charges for inadvertent violations of prison rules, which can lead to loss of good time credits. Further, research has shown that the stress of incarceration on people with disabilities makes them four times more likely to suffer from some type of psychological problem.

Another issue discussed in the AVID report is the unfamiliarity of many prison officials regarding the special needs of disabled prisoners, which often results in their placement in restrictive housing if accessible or special needs cells are unavailable. Some Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agencies, armed with a federal mandate and authority to monitor and visit facilities that house people with disabilities, including prisons and jails, have worked to educate prison officials on the provision of proper accommodations for disabled prisoners.

Disability Rights Washington is the P&A for that state; most states have their own designated P&A organization.

Yet another issue covered by the AVID Prison Project report is the need for educational programming and training for disabled prisoners, including programs devoted to reentry skills. Such skills are critical for prisoners with mobility, hearing and vision disabilities, since many prisons lack proper equipment to assist them.

Finally, some P&A organizations also attempt to improve hygiene conditions for disabled prisoners and try to inform prison officials about ADA and Rehabilitation Act requirements; they assist prisoners in filing administrative complaints and, if necessary, refer specific cases for legal action.

The AVID report noted the DOJ has recommended that all state prisons have an ADA coordinator to ensure compliance with appropriate accommodations for the disabled. Additionally, the report suggested that each facility advise prisoners about grievance and appeal procedures, and provide an administrative process to review complaints. Finally, the DOJ recommended regular institutional audits to monitor compliance with the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, and to formulate remedial measures if violations occur.

In September 2016 the AVID Prison Project published another report, on the impact of solitary confinement on prisoners with mental disabilities, titled “Locked Up and Locked Down.” PLN will review that study in a future issue.