Why you should care

Locked up or free, disabled people have rights.

Charles Grossman already had cataracts when he entered the Florida prison system in his mid-50s in 2009 to serve a 15-year sentence for assault and battery. Quickly, his vision deteriorated to the point where he was legally blind in his left eye and totally blind in his right. As he bounced around correctional facilities, he learned to fend for himself — and to tolerate suspicious guards who let him walk into doors to see if he was faking it. What hurt more was the lack of access to vocational and educational services that might have shortened his sentence or helped him adjust to civilian life after his release.

Now, a small but resolute group of lawyers has filed major legal cases on behalf of blind state prisoners like Grossman, calling for damages and reform. In Illinois, for example, prisoners must pass a written proficiency exam to qualify for training and educational programs. When a legally blind prisoner named Ulysses Williams was denied an audio version of the test, he satisfied the PLRA requirements and then filed a federal lawsuit in April, all with the help of an Illinois advocacy group for the disabled, Equip for Equality. According to the lawsuit, “For two years [Williams] has been continuously denied any ability to work, take educational classes, or obtain his GED.” Now, they are waiting on the summary judgment ruling before proceeding.

Guide prisoners often charge for their services and sometimes refuse to escort blind prisoners.

Perhaps the most significant legal challenge moving through the courts focuses on Maryland, where attorney Daniel Goldstein is representing nine blind inmates who are suing the state prison system for a number of ADA violations, including unequal access to the legal library and a policy that has sighted prisoners guiding visually impaired ones. (The problem? Guide prisoners often charge for their services and sometimes refuse to escort blind prisoners, which essentially confines them to their cells.) Filed in early September, the case has not yet gone to trial.

By law, disabled inmates should be able to take advantage of whatever prisons offer for self-improvement, sentence reduction and rehabilitation, even if they can’t read the big E at the top of the eye chart. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 guarantees equal access to state and local government services, including those provided in lockup. Prisoners also are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which applies to federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons. In a 2006 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that the ADA protects inmates of state prisons from discrimination based on disabilities.

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Keith Sjolie, 55, of Olivia, Minnesota, a legally blind inmate, sits in his room at Devens federal prison in Massachusetts in 2015.

Source Nikki Kahn/Getty

Sounds like legal safeguards are in place, right? Not so fast. Another piece of legislation is in the mix — the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, intended to eliminate frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. It stipulates that inmates must exhaust a prison system’s grievance procedure before filing cases in federal court. That usually means paying court filing fees in full; submitting written complaint forms at each step of what’s typically a two- or three-part process (difficult for the sight-challenged and mentally ill); and appealing the correctional facility’s response. Through it all, prisoners have to rely on the compliance of the institution they are trying to sue.

Attorney Rachel Seevers finds it frustrating that Goldstein had to file suit about conditions in the Maryland prison system. “There are laws in place already,” says Seevers, who works with Disability Rights Washington and authored a recent report on disabled prisoners. “The ADA, implementing regulations, [they all] squarely apply [to this case]. And yet we’re still debating what accommodations can and should be in prison.”

Many experts are optimistic that these suits will help ensure ADA compliance in state and federal facilities, given other recent successes in the prison reform movement — the reduction in the use of lightly regulated private prisons, the potential elimination of solitary confinement and the liberalization of the laws that resulted in mass incarceration during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s. In popular culture, the link between race and mass incarceration is now part of the national debate, thanks in part to Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and Michelle Alexander’s best-seller The New Jim Crow. And a wave of research makes a utilitarian case for prison reform. For instance, Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corporation and the lead author of a report on educational programs in prison, notes that every dollar spent on inmate education saves $5 on reincarceration.

Even though budget constraints do not constitute a legal excuse for correctional facilities to ignore the Eighth and 14th Amendments, as well as a bunch of federal laws, the reality is that the cost of compliance could slow reforms. Prisons typically are not designed to accommodate inmates with disabilities, and some facilities would require expensive overhauls to meet ADA and other legal standards. Medical care for the disabled may be especially difficult to fund. According to Peggy Bailey, the director of health integration at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, prisoners are not covered by Medicaid, so health care upgrades would have to come from strapped state and federal budgets. And as UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich notes, history has shown that when prisons are scrutinized and forced to change their policies, they frequently start backsliding soon after initial improvements.

According to attorney Wallis Nader of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is litigating a case on behalf of four visually impaired Texas inmates with a trial scheduled for January, there’s one big idea at the center of these lawsuits: how America sees its prisons. Nader asks, “Is the role to be punitive or rehabilitative?”

From Grossman’s perspective, the answer is muddled at best. From 2009-2010, prison officials allowed Grossman to undergo four operations on each eye in a last-ditch attempt to restore some of his vision. After the procedures, the inmate discovered that his retinas had been torn — probably as a result of a blow to the back of the head. “Everyone told me a guard hit me because I was moving too slowly,” Grossman tells OZY. “I don’t recall.”

The operations were unsuccessful, and these days the sightless 61-year-old sweats out the last two years of his parole in St. Petersburg, Florida, scraping by. “I was a hunter, fisherman, carpenter and gunsmith,” Grossman writes. “[Now] I sit in my chair and pray to God that this nightmare will someday come to an end.”

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