National Federation of the Blind Assisted Blind Inmates Challenging Disability Discrimination
Nine current and former Maryland prison inmates have settled their discrimination lawsuit, Brown v. Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, for $1.4 million in damages and attorneys’ fees. The Maryland Board of Public Works has just approved the settlement payment. Under the settlement, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) will modify prison procedures and provide assistive technology for the blind to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other applicable laws.
The lawsuit, brought with the assistance of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland (PRISM), alleged that DPSCS denied the blind inmates access to prison jobs, kept them in prison longer, denied them access to prison programs and information, and put them in danger because of their disabilities. Specifically, because they were blind, the inmates were housed at a medium-security prison, even when they were eligible for lower security or for programs at the state’s 26 other facilities. Blind inmates were also excluded from the prison work programs that allow prisoners to learn job skills and earn higher wages and credits off their sentences.
The suit further alleged that the blind prisoners did not have equal access to prison services and privileges available to other inmates because the prison communicates with inmates primarily in print, but made no accommodations for inmates who could not see. The ADA, enacted in 1990, prohibits discrimination against inmates with vision disabilities and requires state agencies, including prisons, to ensure “equally effective communication” with blind and low-vision inmates. The plaintiffs in the case alleged that the prison’s discrimination denied them the ability to communicate and endangered their safety. They had to rely on other inmates to help them navigate prison facilities, read their mail (including attorney-client communications), read the rules in the inmate handbook, use the commissary and prison library, file grievances and requests for medical attention, and more. Not surprisingly, this subjected them to mistreatment by other inmates, who took advantage of the blind prisoners’ need for help by extorting money, commissary items, and even sex.
Some of the changes that DPSCS will make under the settlement agreement include:
- Setting up computers with text-to-speech screen reader software, document scanners, and other assistive technology in the prison library, classrooms, and other locations to allow blind prisoners to conduct research and read and prepare documents independently;
- Ensuring that blind inmates have access to qualified human readers and scribes who meet certain security and disciplinary criteria; and
- Providing training for blind inmates in skills that will allow them greater independence.
“These blind inmates do not seek special treatment,” said Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind. “They seek only equal and independent access to the same facilities, services, and privileges that are available to other inmates. Lack of that access has not only denied them their rights but led to a nightmare of extortion, threats, and violence. We are happy the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has agreed to make changes and hope that corrections officials throughout the nation take note. The National Federation of the Blind will continue to fight for the rights of our blind brothers and sisters, including those behind bars.”