Disabled Prisoners and "Reasonable Accommodation"

Article excerpt

In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (1) (ADA)--an optimistic measure intended to provide equal opportunity in employment and public life to individuals living with physical and mental disabilities. Title II of the ADA guarantees disabled persons equal access to state services and programs, an assurance that the rights these programs fulfill will be protected. (2) Title III mandates "reasonable accommodation" to the needs of the disabled in public facilities. (3) The federal statute includes both a prohibition against discrimination against disabled persons and a provision for redress. Legislators recognized that without the prospect of "effective enforcement provisions," the states would be unlikely to move into compliance with the new legislation. It is now well understood that the United States population of disabled persons was significantly underestimated at the time the legislation was approved. (4) And it can be taken .for granted that the sponsors and supporters of the ADA were not thinking about the disabled among the population of those in prisons and jails, that population now more than two million. (5)

Prisoners are almost wholly dependent on the physical conditions and services of their facilities. It is this dependency--the absence of any alternative source of medical care--that gives prisoners a constitutional right to health care. (6) Thelength of a sentence will often depend on program participation while in prison; procedures for release, such as release to parole supervision, normally assess the rehabilitative efforts of a candidate. However, prisoners with mental and physical disabilities are disadvantaged. They must manage within the security-first concrete and steel priorities of correctional facilities and often must rely on the good will of other prisoners for assistance with activities of daily living, such as hygiene, nutrition, and mobility. Without the ability to use staircases, they may not be allowed to work and are thereby denied the nominal wages paid to prisoners for work. They may not be allowed to enroll in programs and prerelease training or education because of their problems with learning, mobility, or being housed in a medical or psychiatric unit. Without basic medical and psychiatric care, or necessary prosthetic or assistive devices, they face an increased risk of injury in difficult and dangerous prison environments. Prisoners, however, anticipated the promised benefits of the ADA, and pro se litigants have repeatedly brought their claims to federal courts. (7)

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the ADA applies in the prison context, (8) states have resisted accommodation. State legislators in a handful of states exempted disabled prisoners from protection against discrimination, (9) and states generally have argued that they have Eleventh Amendment immunity to civil rights claims for damages arising from violations of Title II of the ADA. In a recent decision, however, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that, insofar as Title II ADA claims involve conduct that violates the Fourteenth Amendment, states do not have sovereign immunity. (10) Pro se prisoner Tony Goodman, a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, filed suit under 42 USC [section] 1983, arguing that he was confined for 23 to 24 hours a day to a cell too small to turn the wheelchair around, that he had been effectively denied access to basic sanitation, medical care, and program participation, and that he had injured himself in efforts to use the toilet. The state of Georgia had argued successfully to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals that it had sovereign immunity to the monetary claims arising from the ADA. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous Court, observed "[N]o one doubts that [section] 5 grants Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the [Fourteenth] Amendment by creating private remedies for actual violations of those provisions'--reminding the Eleventh Circuit that the prisoner's claims were violations of the Constitution as well as the ADA. …