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DOJ Finds ADA Violations in Arizona Prisons, Demands Improvements

On July 19, 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned the director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DCRR), Ryan Thornell, that the state prison system systemically discriminated against prisoners with vision-related disabilities.

The letter from the Disability Rights Section of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division followed a two-and-a-half-year investigation prompted by prisoners alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch. 126 § 12101, et. seq. That law prohibits denying “the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity” on the basis of disability. It also prohibits “being subjected to discrimination due to [a] disability.”

DOJ determined that DCRR discriminated against vision-impaired prisoners because their communications were not as effective as communication with non-disabled prisoners. Specifically lacking were sufficient auxiliary aids and services—such as large print or Braille materials, audio recordings, screen-reader or magnification software. The “inmate handbook” distributed to prisoners during intake is provided only in written form and is unavailable in formats accessible to the vision impaired. DCRR policy specifies the handbook will be read aloud to prisoners unable to read it themselves, but in practice that policy was not being followed, DOJ found.

Moreover, requests for auxiliary aids—including Braille materials—were routinely denied or ignored. Similarly, educational materials in DCRR-offered academic classes were not provided in formats that could be read by prisoners with vision disabilities. Such prisoners were also often denied institutional jobs because officials “refuse[d] to consider providing effective communication and reasonable modifications that would enable these individuals to work,” the letter continued. Even basic disability aids like white canes—to identify prisoners with impaired vision—were denied or delayed; one blind prisoner had to wait almost a year to receive a cane.

Also lacking were accessible processes to submit requests, complaints or grievances. The primary means of making accommodation requests for disabilities is through a Health Needs Request (HNR) form available only in written format or on a prison-issued tablet without accessibility features for vision impairments. Other means to submit HNRs were ineffective, DOJ determined, because they “compromise the privacy of those needing assistance” and “do not allow individuals with vision disabilities to complete these forms independently like their peers who do not have disabilities.”

Additionally, many prisoners were not told their prison has an ADA coordinator, who often admitted receiving no training for the task anyway. The use of “untrained, poorly supervised, and at times untrustworthy” prisoner aides to assist fellow prisoners with vision disabilities was neither effective nor sufficient to provide equal access to programs and services. Aides were not trained to help vision-impaired prisoners navigate the facility, nor to protect their privacy and confidentiality. Some aides were regularly late or absent and, in one case, an aide escorting a blind prisoner led him “into walls and other people several times.”

For prisoners with vision-related disabilities, these failures resulted in serious consequences: “Along with demeaning and diminishing the quality of life of [these] individuals,” DOJ said, they are prevented “from fully taking advantage of [prison] programs and services that could further their rehabilitation and better prepare them for eventual release.”

Needed corrective measures included modifications in policies, practices and procedures to ensure effective communication with and equal opportunities for vision-impaired prisoners; additional training for staff to ensure compliance with ADA; as well as training for ADA coordinators at each state prison. DOJ also demanded reports and other documentation regarding remedial actions. The failure to adopt and implement these corrective measures, DOJ warned, could subject DCRR to litigation. See: U.S. Findings and Conclusions Based on Its Investigation under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, DJ # 204-8-265.

Thornell, who was only recently appointed to his job, promised to “take these findings and conclusions seriously.” But federal investigations reach similar conclusions in state and local lockups with depressing regularity, as PLN readers well know. This investigation is also just the latest black eye for DCRR. A federal court has found prisoners receive “plainly grossly inadequate” medical care, and for repeatedly violating a settlement agreement in a decade-long lawsuit, the same court issued a detailed injunction in April 2023 requiring DCRR to take specific actions to remedy unconstitutional medical treatment provided to prisoners. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.1; and Sep. 2023, p.63.]  


Additional source: KTAR

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