State settles claim involving disabled inmates

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Alabama has agreed to change how inmates with disabilities are treated and housed to settle part of a broader lawsuit over prison medical care.

U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson will hold a Thursday hearing on the proposed settlement filed this week in federal court in Montgomery. In the proposed settlement, the state agreed to make sure inmate housing is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and inmates can access programs and facilities.

“This agreement is an important commitment by the Alabama Department of Corrections to address the discrimination and hardship these prisoners have faced for far too long,” said Maria Morris, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney representing inmates.

The lawsuit contended disabled inmates were kept in facilities that couldn’t safely accommodate them and were inappropriately housed with higher security inmates for no reason other than their disabilities. It also claims they didn’t have access to programs and devices, including functioning wheelchairs. During a fire, a wheelchair-using prisoner had to maneuver deeper into the prison to access a ramp to the outside, according to the lawsuit.

The settlement agreement noted Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley‘s proposal to build four new prisons to replace existing facilities but said that monitoring of settlement compliance will continue regardless of whether the state builds new prisons.

The Alabama Senate could vote on the proposed $800 million bond issue next week.

“The Alabama Department of Corrections agrees that the filed settlement charts a sensible and prudent path to addressing ADA compliance issues caused largely by antiquated correctional facilities,” Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a statement. “A proposal that is currently before the Alabama Legislature to transform the state’s prison system will allow for the construction of four new state-of-the-art facilities that will comply fully with ADA standards, and will go a long way in helping the department meet the terms of the settlement.”

A group of inmates filed a civil lawsuit in 2014 that accused the state of failing to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates. The remaining claims could go to trial later this year.

“While we are pleased to have resolved these claims on behalf of prisoners with disabilities, this case is far from over,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Dunn said the department believes the remaining claims are without merit.

“While the settlement only addresses ADA issues, the department believes it is providing constitutionally adequate medical and mental healthcare and services to offenders incarcerated in Alabama prisons,” Dunn said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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