Despite ADA, Inmates With Disabilities Face Neglect

One third of inmates in federal and state prisons have at least one disability, yet many correctional facilities fall short in handling them.

One third of inmates in federal and state prisons have at least one disability, yet many correctional facilities fall short in handling them.

By Christopher Zoukis

In a 1998 decision, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, the Supreme Court made clear Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits not just federal, but also state and local corrections from discriminating against otherwise qualified individuals due to their disabilities.

First-time offender Roland Yeskey was sentenced to a state prison for 18 to 36 months, but the sentencing court recommended he be admitted to a state-run boot camp for first offenders. If he successfully completed the program, he would be eligible for parole in six months. But due to a history of high blood pressure, Yeskey’s application was rejected. When Yeskey sued, the federal district court agreed with the state official defendants the law did not cover them. An appeals court disagreed and, without a dissent, the Supreme Court ruled ADA Title II clearly applies not just to federal prisons and inmates, but to state and local ones as well.

Despite that unambiguous statement and the ADA’s long history — it was enacted in 1990 — reports and court decisions continue to find violations of ADA’s Title II, which not only forbids discrimination but also mandates services, benefits and programs be offered in settings accessible to participants with disabilities. Title III sets standards for removing or reducing architectural, transportation and communications barriers in places of public accommodation, as does section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act for government facilities.

Although often not given proper recognition, disability issues deserve a prominent place in the minds of corrections policymakers. Department of Justice statistics show approaching one-third of inmates in federal or state prisons claim at least one disability, about three times the rate for the non-incarcerated population; for local jails, nearly two-fifths of inmates report having a disability, about four times the rate for the non-incarcerated.

When these are physical disabilities, advocacy groups have publicized failings and brought litigation, and in many cases won improvements in the way correctional facilities handle particular disabilities. For example the National Association of the Deaf has been active in areas such as getting interpreters for sign language users and addressing telecommunications needs of hearing-impaired inmates and their families. Mental and cognitive disorders are at least as wide spread as physical disabilities: the most recent National Inmate Survey, done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the years 2011-12, revealed that about 15 percent of state and federal prison inmates, and 26 percent of local jail inmates, suffer from serious psychological distress, compared with about three percent of the overall national population.

A frequent complaint, and occasional subject of enforcement action, comes in housing disabled inmates in solitary confinement. The Supreme Court in its 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision held unjustified institutional segregation of people with disabilities violates the ADA, and other courts have had ample occasion to reiterate that principle. For example, a federal judge in Oakland, California in 2015 ordered the state to stop keeping disabled inmates in solitary confinement units separated from general prison populations, since it violated both Title II of the ADA andseveral earlier court orders.

Headway has recently been made in this area for federal prisoners, but – as the Department of Justice recently noted – there needs to be greater attention to diverting those with serious mental disabilities into appropriate settings where treatment is available.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.