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National Recommendations

  1. The U.S. Department of Justice should effectively enforce all statutes and regulations necessary to protect the rights of prisoners with disabilities. As set forth in the report above, the violations are flagrant and consistent nationwide, resulting in significant harm to prisoners with disabilities.
  2. The U.S. Department of Justice should provide guidance about the need to accommodate prisoners with disabilities.  Specifically, it should clarify its commitment to enforcement and state that the following or similar administrative structures and activities may assist in ensuring appropriate accommodations.

    1. ADA Coordinator
      Most prison systems have designated a specific staff person at each facility to respond to requests for accommodations for inmates.  These ADA coordinators have the potential to be a valuable resource for inmates with disabilities. They should be trained in the requirements of the ADA, and familiar with the array of accommodations that may be employed in the prison setting.
    2. Corrections Ombuds Programs
      Though the foregoing case synopses make clear that there are grievance and appeals process in place for inmates to lodge complaints regarding prison conditions and programming, in most states there is no independent entity that may conduct investigations on prison-related claims.  Existing processes may lack accessibility for multiple disabilities such as people with low vision or those who are deaf or hard of hearing.  Similarly, very few states have administrative bodies that will hear prison-related issues. Thus, once inmates have exhausted the internal grievance system in prison, there is little for them to do but file litigation in state or federal court.

      In addition to effective and consistent enforcement at the state and federal level by those entities that have the duty to enforce the law, creating an independent ombuds office would provide for a level of oversight not currently present in most states.  This would potentially decrease the number of lawsuits filed by inmates and their advocates by resolving issues at this lower level. P&A agencies already perform similar work by virtue of their Congressional mandate. P&As should be funded to provide this ombuds function. There is movement to provide an independent ombuds office in Washington state.

      States with human rights commissions or other administrative bodies that hear claims of discrimination may also consider including prison-related issues within the jurisdiction of those bodies, so that inmate claims regarding disability-based discrimination may be addressed without resorting to full litigation.
    3. System-Wide ADA Audit For Programmatic And Physical Accessibility
      In light of the numerous cases involving inaccessible bathrooms, showers, and cells, as well as inmate reports regarding the lack of accommodations in prison programming, state departments of corrections should engage a consultant or agency with expertise in ADA compliance to conduct a thorough ADA audit for physical and programmatic accessibility in order to identify areas in need of improvement.

      Similarly, each entity should review all of its policies and practices to ensure that they are not creating unnecessary barriers for individuals with disabilities.  For example, blanket policies that remove assistive technology devices from prisoners create an unnecessary barrier to those who need them.  Prisons may effectively use an individualized determination process that balances prisoner needs with legitimate safety concerns.

      Compliance with ADA/Rehab Act and the completion of an internal policy review should be necessary preconditions to the receipt of federal corrections funds.
  3. Congress should fund a P&A program targeted at assisting individuals with disabilities housed in correctional settings.  P&A agencies have a mandate to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in institutional settings, including, but not limited to, the mandate to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.  P&As provide substantial and increasing levels of representation for inmates with disabilities, housed in a variety of correctional settings.

As this report documents, the reported violations of individual’s rights are significant in number and we surmise that many go unreported due to prison culture and in some cases, labyrinthine and inaccessible complaint procedures.  These barriers result in worse conditions for prisoners with disabilities than for other prisoners.   P&As solve these problems before they require full litigation; funding for a P&A can improve conditions, reduce recidivism, and conserve public funds.


State Recommendations


  1. P&As across the country should consider increased monitoring and outreach in the prisons in their state. While many P&As are engaging in effective, wide-ranging advocacy related to inmates with disabilities, with increasing numbers of people with disabilities entering the prison system, prisons are quickly becoming the new institutions for people with disabilities. Given the P&As’ decades-long history of advocating on behalf of institutionalized people with disabilities, the P&As are encouraged to employ that expertise in the prison context.
  2. State prison systems should develop relationships with the state’s P&A. While the prison systems in each state are invariably distinct from one another, those systems that appear most able to respond to and accommodate inmates with disabilities share some common traits. Generally, and not surprisingly, the states with what appear to be the most progressive prison systems often have an ongoing, collaborative relationship with the state P&A. As seen in the foregoing case studies, P&As use a variety of advocacy methods to address disability-related issues in prison and those systems that routinely meet with the state P&A are often able to resolve issues though informal advocacy and negotiation.  Obviously not all issues can be resolved this way, and P&As have litigated disability-related issues in the prisons, in both state and federal court. However, on balance it appears that those systems faring the best are those that are collaborators rather than adversaries with the state P&A.
  3. Law firms and other advocacy groups should partner with P&As to increase capacity to help inmates with disabilities. With the congressional authority to monitor and conduct investigations and advocacy in the correctional setting, many P&As have extensive, first-hand information regarding issues facing inmates with disabilities.  Moreover, as demonstrated in some of the foregoing case summaries, P&As have successfully used their agency standing to serve as organizational plaintiffs in prison-related litigation. Other advocacy partners should leverage this advantage by partnering with P&As in assessing and mounting such litigation.


The AVID Prison Project is a collaboration between 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, Disability Rights Texas, Disability Rights Washington and The National Disability Rights Network.