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Florida Prisoners with Disabilities to Receive Accommodations Under Settlement

by David M. Reutter

In July 2017, Disability Rights Florida, the state’s federally-funded Protection and Advocacy organization that advocates for disabled individuals, settled a historic lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections over the FDOC’s systematic failure to comply with federal measures intended to protect prisoners with physical disabilities.

The FDOC has a long history of classifying disabled prisoners to facilities that are ill-equipped to handle their needs. Once there, they face serious obstacles to obtaining even basic accommodations, leaving them unable to function in the prison environment or disconnected from family and friends.

For example, prisoner David Belle was born with severe birth defects and is missing both feet and most of the fingers on his right hand. Prison officials at the Gulf Correctional Institution assigned him to a second-floor cell and told him he could either keep his prosthetic legs or use a wheelchair. It took a fall down the stairs to convince staff to move him to the bottom floor and give him a wheelchair. The warden and an assistant told Belle they would have someone “take care of him” if he did not stop filing grievances.

The 43-page settlement agreement changes how prisoners with disabilities are screened and treated by the FDOC. It specifically addresses the needs of deaf and hard of hearing (D/HOH) prisoners, “Inmates with Vision Disabilities” (IVD) and “Inmates with Mobility Disabilities” (IMD). State prison officials are now required to screen and assess prisoners for disabilities during the intake process, and the assessment must “include documentation of any needs and accommodations desired.”

Prisoners covered by the agreement will be moved to facilities designed or modified to handle their needs, with the transfers to be completed by June 30, 2018. Prisoners entering the system with accommodation devices or wheelchairs will be allowed to keep them unless there is a security concern. If confiscated, the FDOC must provide approved devices.

Prisoners with disabilities cannot be denied work release or educational or work programming, including for PRIDE prison industry jobs, if they meet “the skill, experience, and educational requirements, medical restrictions, custody level, criminal history, and time remaining on sentence requirements.”

The settlement agreement requires staff to be trained on disability rights, the requirements of the settlement and accommodations for disabled prisoners. Prisoners designated to assist other prisoners with disabilities “will receive initial and periodic training as to their job duties and performance criteria.”

D/HOH prisoners shall be provided assistance from a qualified sign language interpreter in virtually all important aspects of prison life, including at disciplinary hearings, appointments with staff, and education, work and religious programs. They will receive hearing aids, teletypewriters, captioned telephones, video relay services and vibrating watches as needed. The FDOC must install visual alert systems to alert D/HOH prisoners to announcements.

IVD prisoners will be provided white canes, talking watches, magnifiers and recorders or players for correspondence. Magnifiers will also be made available in the general and law libraries. Such prisoners will be allowed to use audio books and access correspondence courses from the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Further, the FDOC must design dormitories to accommodate IMD prisoners. The settlement agreement requires that recreation tracks at accommodating facilities “be paved so that they can be safely traversed by IVDs and IMDs.”

The settlement also specifies that Disability Rights Florida will receive $2 million in attorneys’ fees and costs. The Florida Justice Institute (FJI) and the Deaf/Disability Rights Unit at Morgan & Morgan served as counsel in the case, too.

“There are thousands of people with physical disabilities in Florida’s prisons who will benefit from this settlement,” said FJI director Randall C. Berg, Jr. “This comprehensive settlement agreement requires the 3rd largest state prison system to provide equal access to programs, services, and activities for physically disabled inmates.”

See: Disability Rights Florida, Inc. v. Jones, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:16-cv-00047-RH-CAS. 

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Related legal case

Disability Rights Florida, Inc. v. Jones