January 26, 2016 – Disability Rights Florida, Florida’s federally-funded Protection and Advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) over its systemic failure to comply with federal measures intended to protect individuals with disabilities incarcerated throughout the state. The suit, filed with the assistance of the Florida Justice Institute and Morgan & Morgan, P.A., accuses the FDOC of routinely violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, as well as the Eighth Amendment and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“There are hundreds—if not thousands—of people with physical disabilities who are incarcerated in Florida,” said Randall C. Berg, Jr. of the Florida Justice Institute, who represents Disability Rights Florida in the suit. “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.”
The 123-page Complaint recounts the ordeals of 32 incarcerated people who have suffered from the FDOC’s failure to comply with federal laws intended to benefit and otherwise protect individuals with disabilities. Specifically, the suit notes how the FDOC has failed to provide qualified sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids and services during critical interactions such as medical appointments, disciplinary hearings, and educational programs, and has further failed to provide meaningful telecommunications access to deaf prisoners desiring to remain in touch with loved ones. The suit also explains how certain FDOC facilities are not fully wheelchair accessible, and charges that the FDOC excludes prisoners from work programs and other services because of their disabilities, while retaliating against them for attempting to exercise their rights under these laws.
“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. “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. Our organization is seeking to vindicate those principles for the incarcerated people of Florida.”
As Florida’s Protection and Advocacy organization, Disability Rights Florida is empowered to investigate the treatment of people with disabilities and advocate on their behalf. Disability Rights Florida and its attorneys began this investigation almost two years ago, and in the process reviewed thousands of pages of records and spoke to dozens of incarcerated people about their mistreatment.
The organization is seeking an injunction requiring the FDOC to, among other things, comply with federal disability laws, provide prisoners with the aids and services they need, structurally modify prisons where necessary to ensure equal access, and to train its staff to ensure ongoing compliance.
Disability Rights Florida is represented by attorneys Randall C. Berg, Jr., Dante P. 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. Deaf/Disability Rights Unit. The case is Disability Rights Florida v. Jones, Case No. 4:16-cv-00047-RH-CAS in the Northern District of Florida. It has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.