Advocates demand improved accommodations for inmates with disabilities

prison yard and building with man in wheelchair rolling away

The Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project released an extensive new interactive report June 22, calling on state prisons to undertake a series of reforms to bring the treatment of incarcerated people with disabilities in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“People are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment,” said Mark Stroh, executive director of Disability Rights Washington, which founded the AVID project in 2014, in a news release.  “In drafting this report, we have found that inmates with disabilities are often neglected and excluded from programs, rehabilitation, and basic medical care, subjecting them to additional forms of punishment solely due to their disability.”

The report details a range of case summaries reported by state Protection and Advocacy organizations, highlighting their efforts to improve inmates’ hygiene, health and safety, as well as communication access and right to participate in prison programs and other services.

Stories abound of inmates with diabetes being deprived meals necessary to maintain their insulin levels, or equipment to independently monitor their glucose. Another inmate with cerebral palsy was denied spill-proof eating equipment.

Seizure of essential mobility devices, such as wheelchairs and crutches, is not uncommon, forcing inmates to drag themselves around prison facilities. Most inspected facilities fall short of meeting ADA architectural regulations, preventing inmates from maneuvering in their mobility devices and in some cases using showers and toilets.

The advocacy groups routinely received complaints of inmates lacking access to hearing aids, audiobooks and teletypewriters. Prior to release, individuals with disabilities are often denied the opportunity to participate in vocational activities, programs to help them receive public benefits and other essential transition services offered to their peers.

“Because the focus in prison and jails is often about safety and incarceration, the issues of accommodation and service development are not a high priority,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, in the news release. “So this is a population that is very vulnerable, and least likely to get the kinds of services they need.”

Among the report’s recommendations, AVID is calling on states to appoint independent corrections ombuds programs and create ongoing accessibility review systems. Further funding to the federally-mandated Protection and Advocacy agencies and increased training for prison ADA coordinators and prison staff is also needed, the report argues.

Nationwide, surveys have found that as many as 31 percent of the more than 1.5 million inmates have disabilities.

Along with DRW, advocates from the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Disability Law Colorado, the Advocacy Center of Louisiana, Disability Rights New York, Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities of South Carolina and Disability Rights Texas participated in the report.

Learn more about the AVID Prison Project, and watch videos of inmates’ stories here.

Disability Rights Washington, publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.