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Settlement Improves ADA Accessibility Features, Health Care and Training in Florida Prisons

by Kevin Bliss

The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) entered into another agreement with Disability Rights Florida, Inc. (DRF) on November 8, 2021, denying it had breached an earlier 2017 agreement regarding treatment of disabled prisoners, but promising to make several changes to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq.

The new agreement settled a suit filed by DRF almost two years earlier on December 4, 2019, accusing DOC of breaching the 2017 agreement, which was designed to ensure that state prisoners are not “put at daily risk with little opportunity to gain the skills or training necessary to contribute as productive citizens once their sentence has ended,” DRF Executive Director Peter Sleasman said.

The resulting new agreement sets out a series of compliance requirements to benefit state prisoners with vision, hearing, and mobility disabilities, obligating DOC to provide adequate staff and training at intake to identify and classify incoming prisoners with disabilities, their needed medical care, and attendant medical devices.

Any prisoner who requests a specific evaluation—even if not categorized as disabled upon intake—will be given an individual evaluation to determine any needed treatment, medical device, special housing or whether an inmate assistant (IA) needs to be assigned.

DOC also agreed to improve ADA accessibility in sixteen of the state’s prisons, including all four reception centers. All buildings in ADA-designated prisons will be wheelchair accessible and will add video-enabled devices, teletypewriters, visual alert systems with light boards, and captioned telephones to designated dorms.

DOC further agreed to train and maintain a pool of IAs at each ADA-designated prison, drawing one to appoint to any incoming prisoner with disabilities. IA training and monitoring by DOC will include assessment of disabled prisoners’ needs, effectively providing aid, understanding functional implications of each category of disability, and overcoming common misunderstandings generally held about the disabled.

DOC agreed to staff a minimum of five qualified interpreters proficient in American Sign Language and lip reading to assist hearing-impaired prisoners in medical, dental, and mental health appointments, classification, call-outs, education and substance abuse programs, as well as intake and orientation, disciplinary hearings, Prison Rape Elimination Act and release/reentry information, or anything outside a prisoner’s routine day-to-day schedule. Interpreter positions will be advertised on the MyFlorida Jobs webpage and offer a starting salary of $55,000 to $60,000 per year.

Prisons without an interpreter should be able to access one through the Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) program, which is required to have real-time video and audio with images large enough to display the face, arms, hands and fingers of both the interpreter and the prisoner being assisted.

DOC must also hire an independent monitor at an annual salary up to $250,000 to make scheduled visits to each region, ensuring all electronic and mechanical devices for disabled prisoners are in proper working order and also interviewing prisoners with disabilities and their IAs, DOC and medical staff and interpreters, with complete access to all records necessary to complete a quarterly report used to evaluate compliance with the agreement.

DRF represents every disabled prisoner in the state and encourages any of them to contact the nonprofit to report problems with DOC’s care and treatment of their disability by calling toll-free 800-342-0823 or 800-346-4127 TDD.

The parties then reached an agreement under which DRF recovered $650,000 in costs and fees for its attorneys, Dante P. Trevisani and Erica A. Selig of Florida Justice Institute, DRF in-house attorneys Curtis Filaroski and Molly Paris, and Sharon Caserta from the Deaf/Disability Rights Unit of Morgan and Morgan, P.A in Jacksonville. See: Disability Rights Fla., Inc. v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., Case No. 2019-CA-2825, Fla. Jud. (2nd Circuit, Leon County, 2021).  

Additional source: Florida Justice Institute

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Related legal case

Disability Rights Fla., Inc. v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr.,