- 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.
- As the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operates facilities that inappropriately use solitary confinement, it should follow the recommendations set forth in this report that are provided for states. The federal government should reform the use of solitary confinement in all BOP facilities so that it fully conforms to U.S. and to international law and standards for humane treatment.
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.
- 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.
- Corrections Ombuds Programs
Though the foregoing case synopses make clear that there are grievance and appeals processes 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.
- The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), should track the rate of mental illness in state and federal prisons, as well as in local jails. There is no standardized tracking of the numbers of inmates with mental illness in the nation’s correctional systems. However, in order to address the concerns raised in this report, understanding the scope of the issue is critical, and thus better data is needed. BJS’s National Prisoner Statistics Program currently tracks data points in state and federal prisons twice per year. BJS should include questions about mental illness in that survey. Similarly BJS’s Annual Survey of Jails should be amended to capture mental illness specific data as well. BJS should also issue a special report on inmates with mental illness in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the data collected on this inmate population.
- Congress should fund a P&A program for the representation of 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 can help solve these problems before they require full litigation; funding for a P&A can improve conditions, reduce recidivism, and conserve public funds.
Congress should ensure that sentencing reform efforts result in reductions in the number of individuals with mental health needs who are incarcerated for low-level non-violent offenses. This reform should include increasing access to criminal justice diversion programs, and increasing the availability of low cost or free voluntary community-based mental health services.
Reducing the number of individuals with mental health needs who are incarcerated will diminish the number who are confined in settings not designed to meet their needs. These efforts will also result in an increase in the availability of correctional resources to ensure appropriate mental health treatment for those men and women who must be incarcerated for reasons of public safety.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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.