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Inmate sues prison, alleges he was denied a shower for 3 months

Robert Furgess says he was not permitted to shower because the unit did not have a handicap-accessible shower facility

By Madeleine O’Neill
Erie Times-News, Pa.

ERIE, Pa. — A prison inmate claiming he was denied a shower for more than three months at the State Correctional Institution at Albion has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The inmate, 49-year-old Robert Furgess, says he was not permitted to shower while he was living in the prison’s restrictive housing unit because the unit did not have a handicap-accessible shower facility.

Furgess, who is now incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Greene, is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder out of Philadelphia County, according to court documents.

His two-count complaint, filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in January, was transferred into the Western District of Pennsylvania on Wednesday. It was originally filed in the state’s Middle District, which includes Harrisburg.

Furgess claims he suffers from a neuromuscular disease that impairs his vision, walking requires him to wear leg braces to prevent him from falling. While at SCI Albion, Furgess was transferred to the restrictive housing unit on Dec. 10, 2015, according to the complaint.

“There were no shower facilities in the RHU which were handicapped accessible,” Furgess’ lawyer, John Mizner, wrote in the complaint. “For that reason, (Furgess) was not given the opportunity to shower for three months,” between December 2015 and March 2016.

The complaint claims that SCI Albion staff members recorded that Furgess was accepting showers during this time.

Furgess also claims that, when he was eventually granted a shower, he had to sit in an armless plastic chair in the shower stall instead of using a shower facility with safety bars. When he tried to exit the shower, he fell headfirst into the steel shower door and was knocked unconscious, according to the complaint.

He received treatment at UPMC Hamot and is now confined to a wheelchair, Mizner wrote.

Furgess requests unspecified damages in the complaint. He charges that his treatment at SCI Albion violated federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The law is clear that prisons are required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Mizner said Friday. “Mr. Furgess clearly had a disability. It wasn’t accommodated in any way, let alone a reasonable way, and as a result he’s in a wheelchair.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, Amy Worden, said the department would not comment on the allegations in the lawsuit. But she said department policy requires that inmates in restrictive housing units, or RHUs, be given the opportunity to shower three times a week, and that ADA-compliant showers were installed in SCI Albion’s restrictive housing units in 2016 and 2017.

“Prior to the installation of those showers,” Worden said, “RHU inmates who required the use of ADA shower facilities were provided with the opportunity to shower in the ADA-compliant shower facilities located in the institution’s infirmary.”

©2017 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)