Florida prisons will soon have more disability accommodations

The new settlement affirms these individuals’ right to medical devices they need as well as work and educational opportunities


By Hannah Critchfield
Tampa Bay Times
        
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Change is coming for members of Florida’s aging incarcerated population who live with disabilities.

The Florida Department of Corrections and Disability Rights Florida have reached a settlement following allegations that the state prison agency was failing to provide proper disability accommodations behind bars.

The agreement creates increased protections for prisoners with disabilities and bolsters oversight over the state correctional system.

The deal stems from a lawsuit filed in 2015 that accused Florida’s prison agency of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though originally settled two years later, civil rights groups recently alleged the Department of Corrections was not in compliance with large parts of the initial agreement. A new settlement was reached on Nov. 8.

The case specifically relates to individuals with vision, hearing or mobility disabilities. The new agreement affirms their need for additional accommodations.

Today, Florida has more people serving life without parole than any other state in the nation.

“Florida’s statutory approach to sentencing generally leads to an older prison population,” notes an annual Department of Corrections report for the 2019–2020 fiscal year in a section on challenges facing the agency.

Over a fourth of Florida’s prisoners are “elderly inmates,” according to the report, meaning they’re 50 or older. As the incarcerated population continues to age, the number of people living with disabilities behind bars is expected to grow.

The new settlement affirms these individuals’ right to medical devices they need — from wheelchairs to hearing aids to canes — regardless of transfer from one state prison to another.

If a medical device is taken away from an incarcerated person or their disability level downgraded, the state agency must now provide an explanation to Disability Rights Florida, and the two organizations will then work to find “reasonable alternative accommodations” for the prisoner.

Incarcerated people will not be required to pay for approved disability devices under the agreement.

The agreement also states that prisons will need to provide reasonable accommodations to ensure inmates with physical disabilities can still participate in work, educational and vocational opportunities.

Incarcerated people with hearing impairments will now have the option to use captioned telephones, which provide text of what a person on the other end of the call is saying. The pilot program for these began this week.

“There’s a significant number of people in the Department of Corrections who lost their hearing later in life and don’t know American Sign Language,” said Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, which provided attorneys on behalf of Disability Rights. “So this should help a lot of those people.”

The state prison agency will also provide video devices for placing calls by June of next year. Teletypewriters will be available for individuals with speaking impairments.

The Department of Corrections will hire on-site American Sign Language interpreters, and pave recreational tracks to make them safe for individuals with movement and vision disabilities by 2023.

Additional long-term architectural modifications to make Florida prisons accessible must be completed by 2027.

Notably, the Department of Corrections must hire a monitor to ensure state prisons are in compliance with the settlement. The prison agency must also conduct regular testing to identify people living with disabilities in their custody, and track and share this data with Disability Rights Florida.

The state prison agency has not yet responded to a request for comment.

©2021 Tampa Bay Times.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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