For years, inmates with disabilities in Florida have doubly struggled to navigate its prison system, lawyers say.
Inmates with hearing problems have said they were denied interpreters or hearing aids that would help them understand orders or announcements in their facilities. Inmates who are blind alleged that their canes were not replaced when broken, making it impossible to navigate the halls around them. Some with mobility problems reported that they were not allowed to have wheelchairs inside their cells or that their prosthetic limbs were confiscated, meaning they had to drag themselves around in their cells or wait in long lines for the few wheelchair-accessible showers or tables in their prisons.
The state has agreed to a major settlement with a statewide disability advocacy group to address those complaints, setting a timeline to bring its facilities into compliance with federal laws including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment.
The settlement, reached Friday, followed a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Florida early last year, and gives the agency four years to add resources for inmates and make its facilities more accessible to those with disabilities. The changes include making qualified interpreters available for disciplinary hearings and doctor’s appointments, providing functioning canes to inmates with visual disabilities and removing architectural barriers in prisons for wheelchair users and others with mobility issues.
“It’s going to be game-changing,” said Randall Berg, an attorney for the Florida Justice Institute, which helped Disability Rights Florida bring the suit along with the law firm Morgan & Morgan. “This is a contract in essence, and the contract provides what the department is supposed to be doing.”
The settlement, filed in United States District Court in Tallahassee, followed years of legal actions on behalf of inmates with physical disabilities who sought equal treatment, Berg said. The lawsuit that Disability Rights Florida filed last year included complaints from 32 of those prisoners, who said they were denied prosthetics, wheelchairs, hearing aids and functioning canes, among other issues.
The suit also alleged that the prison agency had violated federal law by not providing sufficient resources to those inmates and, in some cases, retaliating against those inmates after requests for such accommodations. After the case was filed, the judge ordered both parties to go through mediation to find an acceptable settlement, which took five months, Berg said.
According to Florida Department of Corrections records cited in the lawsuit, its facilities have about 2,300 inmates who have a physical disability. A motion for summary judgment filed by Disability Rights Florida noted that that total might double-count inmates who have more than one type of disability, but also suggested that the agency might undercount how many inmates classify as disabled.
The issue of inmates who have such disabilities has also been compounded by Florida’s aging prison population, due in part to a rule that requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence unless it is challenged and overturned.
After the changes, 18 major institutions will be ADA compliant for inmates with disabilities, according to the settlement. The settlement also contains an implementation schedule that covers staff training and any physical renovations needed to match ADA accessibility standards in institutional settings.
“We are glad that we have reached an agreement,” Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in a statement. “FDC will continue to ensure that all in our custody receive proper care and treatment.”
Glady added that how much it will cost to bring facilities into compliance is not yet clear.
The agency “has a designated ADA coordinator and as such, has already begun to work on many of the identified issues with existing funding,” she wrote in a statement. “Additionally, the Department had designated funding for ADA compliance in this year's budget. Additional costs have not yet been determined.”
Berg said he was hopeful about the changes agreed upon in the settlement, and added that inmates with disabilities who were previously shut out would eventually be able to “live in a prison environment like a person without disabilities can.”
“The department seems to be well intentioned to make these changes and to comply with the law,” Berg said. “We’re hopeful that it’s a new day for the Department of Corrections.”