Disability Rights Florida, Florida’s federally-funded Protection and Advocacy organization for individuals with disabilities, has settled an historic federal lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) over its systemic failure to comply with federal measures intended to protect individuals with physical disabilities incarcerated throughout Florida’s prisons. The suit was brought with the assistance of attorneys from the Florida Justice Institute and Morgan & Morgan, P.A., against the FDC for 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 thousands of people with physical disabilities in Florida’s prisons who will benefit from this settlement,” said Randall C. Berg, Jr. of the Florida Justice Institute, who represented Disability Rights Florida. “This comprehensive settlement agreement requires the 3rd largest state prison system to provide equal access to programs, services, and activities for physically disabled inmates.”
The 43-page Settlement Agreement will allow the FDC up to four years to remedy the ordeals that incarcerated people with disabilities have suffered for years from the FDC’s failure to comply with federal laws intended to benefit and otherwise protect individuals with physical disabilities. For example, the Settlement Agreement will require the FDC 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 to provide meaningful telecommunications access to deaf prisoners so they can remain in touch with loved ones. It will require the removal of architectural barriers in many prisons for prisoners with mobility disabilities. The Settlement Agreement also requires the FDC to allow prisoners with physical disabilities to participate in work, educational, and religious programs and other services, and prohibits FDC from retaliation against them for attempting to exercise their rights. The Agreement also requires that the FDC properly train its staff to ensure ongoing compliance.
“The laws guaranteeing equal access are there to ensure that the dignity and independence of people with disabilities are respected regardless of the setting,” 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 are put at daily risk with little opportunity to gain the skills or training necessary to contribute as productive citizens once their sentence has ended. Our organization is seeking through this Settlement Agreement to enforce 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 work on this lawsuit over four years ago, and in the process reviewed thousands of pages of records and spoke to dozens of incarcerated people about their mistreatment. The parties hammered out the settlement agreement in court ordered mediation which spanned over 5 months in an effort to avoid a lengthy trial and an appeal had the case not settled.
Disability Rights Florida is represented by attorneys Randall C. Berg, Jr., Dante P. Trevisani and Erica A. 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-WS-CAS in the Northern District of Florida, and was before U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.