Prison Ban on Motorized Wheelchairs Shelved

     MANHATTAN (CN) — New York discriminated against an inmate who cannot walk by banning his motorized wheelchair, the Second Circuit ruled Friday.
     Joshua Cotter, an attorney for inmate Nathaniel Wright, said the ruling marks the first of its kind in the country against such a policy.
     “We’re extremely pleased with the decision that came out,” said Cotter, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Central New York. “I think has the potential to affect a number of inmates with disabilities, not only inmates with mobility impairments.”
     Cotter’s client Wright has severely deformed legs from his lifelong cerebral palsy and scoliosis.
     He has been using a Medicaid-provided motorized wheelchair for the past two decades, including some of the correctional facilities where he has been serving a five-year sentence for felony sexual abuse.
     Though the Monroe County Jail and Elmira Correctional Center let the motorized wheelchair roll, Marcy and Franklin Correctional Facilities enforced the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s ban on the device.
     New York insisted that it accommodated Wright’s disability by giving him a quad cane, a manual wheelchair, a customized cushion, knee pads and access to its mobility assistance program.
     Wright says that cane only helps him out for very short distances, and the manual chair causes him pain to operate.
     This has left Wright “almost entirely dependent on the mobility assistance program, which he attests is unreliable and ineffective,” the Second Circuit noted.
     “For example, Wright, at times, has had to ask as many as six mobility aides for help before finding a willing aide,” the court’s 34-page opinion states. “On multiple occasions he has been unable to go to the law library and missed morning sick calls, doctor appointments, and meals. Late at night, he often does not ‘bother’ the mobility aides and instead attempts to propel himself to the bathroom.”
     Other nights, Wright says, he has not been able to make it that far, and soiled himself.
     Since Wright never documented these incidents, he had trouble pursuing a lawsuit that he filed in 2013 — one year into his incarceration.
     Dismissing the case last year, U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino found it “entirely implausible” that Wright did not report his complaints to the prison staff.
     A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit unanimously disagreed on Friday.
     “Understandably, a mobility-impaired inmate — who must rely in large part on his fellow prisoners for basic assistance — may hesitate to report instances of neglect,” the 34-page opinion states. “It takes no imagination to conclude that making such a report would likely require identifying a less than responsive mobility aide which at worst could put Wright in danger and at best further inhibit future assistance.”
     The opinion lists U.S. Circuit Judges Ralph Winter and Peter Hall as dual authors. U.S. Circuit Judge Christopher Droney rounded out the panel.
     When the case returns to federal court, state lawyers will have an opportunity to prove at trial that the prison’s accommodations for Wright were reasonable, but Friday’s ruling means that they can no longer justify the underlying policy.
     “In arriving at this conclusion, we further hold that DOCCS’s blanket ban on motorized wheelchairs — without an individualized inquiry into the risks of allowing a mobility-impaired inmate to use his or her motorized wheelchair — violates the ADA and the RA,” Winter and Hall wrote.
     Wright, 54, is expected to be released from prison by April 2017.
     New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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