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DOJ Reaches Settlement Over Disability Access With Vermont Prison System

by Jacob Barrett

On October 28, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reached a settlement with the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC) to remedy conditions in state prisons that fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101 et seq.

The settlement resolves an investigation into complaints that hearing-impaired prisoners were given a hearing aid for just one ear, and that it was poorly maintained. Mobility-impaired prisoners also complained that DOC hadn’t retrofitted facilities to provide accessibility and often wouldn’t even accommodate requests for a lower bunk.

“People with disabilities in Vermont deserve equal access, and that does not change when they are incarcerated,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Jonathan A. Ophardt in a statement. “The [DOC] has now committed to removing barriers to participation for inmates with disabilities in [state] facilities, including inmates who have physical and communication disabilities.”

DOC Commissioner Jim Baker insisted that “DOC was a willing partner in this, has always been at the table, and has already implemented a number of the items outlined—many of which were in place before [this] agreement[’s] finalization.”

Baker did not explain why DOC didn’t implement policies years earlier if they were already in place.

According to state Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office, there have been accommodation issues in DOC prisons for years. Valerio said the U.S. Attorney’s office got involved several years ago after it became aware of a number of complaints by prisoners, who “struggle with the fact that our prisons are old and our ability to accommodate these things on a technical level are difficult given the infrastructure that really needs to be updated.”

“And that’s one of the really important parts of the settlement,” he added, “is that [DOC] will pursue funding to improve the infrastructure.”

In fact it must complete improvements within 33 months. The agreement also obligates DOC to hire an ADA Compliance Director and ADA Coordinators at each prison within 30 days. Within six months, DOC must also submit for DOJ review a proposed training program for staff on the issues that will be conducted within nine months and every year thereafter.

DOJ claims the settlement protects the rights of prisoners “to equal access to educational, counseling and recreation programs.”

Importantly, the settlement provides mobility-impaired prisoners access to prison facilities “such as visitation areas, libraries, medical facilities, intake processing, accessible cells, and routes to and through prison buildings.” It also provides hearing-impaired prisoners appropriate assistance, such as sign language interpreters, who must be paid professionals, not other prisoners, as well as interpretation of written materials, hearing aids, cochlear devices, video interpreting devices, and video telephones. It further includes development of “an updated Communication Plan to reflect the post-release supervision environment,” in consultation with former prisoners and DOC’s ADA coordinator.

Meanwhile the agreement requires DOC to pay $80,000 evenly split among “five [5] aggrieved persons identified by the United States during its investigation,” who each must receive a claim form within 30 days.

Within six months of the settlement, DOC is required to provide DOJ with a written status report, including supporting documentation showing the efforts to comply with the agreement. DOC is further required to update that with a new status report every six months. See: Settlement Agreement between the United States of America and Vermont Department of Corrections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, DJ # 204-78-44.  

Additional sources: Associated Press, U.S. News

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