(CN) - The Florida Department of Corrections routinely denies disabled prisoners access to wheelchairs, canes, sign language interpreters and even hearing aids, a disability rights group claims in court.
In a lawsuit filed in Tallahassee Federal Court on behalf of 32 inmates, Disability Rights Florida claims the routinely encountered access of other difficulties that the state prison system could have easily rectified.
Instead, the group says in its 123-page complaint, the Florida Department of Corrections chose to willfully violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Eighth Amendment, and the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The suit maintains that not only does the situation create a hardship in their day-to-day existence, but it prevents them from taking advantage of educational or work programs.
According to the complaint, not only did the state's prisons fail to accommodate inmate disabilities, but they retaliated against inmates who filed grievances about the challenges they encountered.
"There are hundreds - if not thousands - of people with physical disabilities who are incarcerated in Florida," said Randall Berg Jr. of the Florida Justice Institute in a statement. "Even though they are in prison, the law requires that they be properly accommodated so that they can have equal access to programs, services, and activities. But the Florida Department of Corrections is not following the law."
A corrections department spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
According to the complaint, Disability Rights Florida conducted an investigation spanning two years into the abuses inside the state's prisons.
The group claims it found the corrections department replaces hearing aids every four years and only one pair at a time, which the disability lawyers argue is insufficient. One inmate, the complaint states, has waited since 2009.
It also found that although department policy calls for American Sign Language interpreters to deaf inmates for extended health care visits, they repeatedly fail to do so.
Deaf inmates also routinely do not receive interpreters for orientations, disciplinary hearings, educational programs and court hearings held by phone. Lamar Maddox, who is deaf, has not once had an ASL interpreter for a medical appointment in his 15 years of incarceration, the group claims.
It also says deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners do not receive telecommunications access to talk with friends and family, and that in some instances, deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners are disciplined because they cannot hear orders by staff.
It also says blind prisoners do not receive text-to-speech software in the library or for other written materials. One prisoner, Earvin Ealy, regularly pays other inmates to read forms for him. The suit also claims his family has been prohibited from sending him audio books, the complaint says.
"The laws guaranteeing equal access are there to ensure that the dignity and independence of people with disabilities are respected," said Maryellen McDonald, Executive Director of Disability Rights Florida, in a written statement. "When those laws are not followed, not only do they result in a lack of access, but people with disabilities can suffer from the humiliation, indignity, and injuries that accompany it."
Disability Rights Florida has previously sued the state over abuses at individual prisons. Last May, the group announced a settlement with Dade Correctional Institution after officials allegedly failed to protect inmates with mental illness from abuse.
Inmates there won some concessions including specialized training of correctional officers and security enhancements.
In June 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Florida's assistant attorney general regarding the state's non-compliance with requests to visit correctional facilities breaking federal disability laws.
The state corrections department still has not complied with the inspections, the group says.
Disability Rights Florida is represented by Randall Berg Jr., Dante Trevisani and Erica Selig from the Florida Justice Institute; Molly Paris and David Boyer from Disability Rights Florida; and Sharon Caserta from Morgan and Morgan P.A.
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