Prompted by complaints that the needs of deaf, blind, and wheelchair-using inmates are being routinely ignored, lawyers for a group of prisoners filed suit against the Florida Department of Corrections on Tuesday, claiming a litany of abuses.
The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Justice Institute on behalf of Disability Rights Florida, includes accounts from 32 prisoners of being denied hearing aids, wheelchairs, or other devices in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.
In some cases, deaf inmates reported having to communicate with prison staff via hand-written notes because the prisons didn’t provide a capable sign language interpreter.
In other instances, the Department of Corrections confiscated prisoners’ prosthetic limbs upon arrival.
“There are hundreds—if not thousands—of people with physical disabilities who are incarcerated in Florida,” Randall C. Berg, Jr., executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, said in a prepared statement.
“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.”
A spokesman for the DOC declined to comment, citing the department’s policy of not discussing pending litigation.
Most of the prisoners named in the lawsuit are deaf or partially so. Of the latter group, many had to wait months or years to receive hearing aids. In the interim, they were sometimes disciplined for failing to report for meals or head counts they didn’t know were happening because they couldn’t hear the announcements.
According to the lawsuit, the department has a policy of replacing hearing aids only every four years.
The lawsuit also maintains that deaf and hearing-impaired inmates have been virtually cut off from family and attorneys by the prisons’ antiquated technology. Because they can’t use typical phones, they are sometimes given teletypewriters to send messages, but the machines are often broken or inaccessible, the lawsuit says.
In another case, an inmate who was born with severe birth defects and is missing both feet and most of the fingers on his right hand, was told he could either use a wheelchair or keep his prosthetic legs. He was assigned a top bunk on a prison’s second floor and it was only when he fell down the stairs that the prison staff agreed to provide him with a wheelchair and a bed on a bottom bunk, according to the lawsuit.
The inmate, David Belle, filed several grievances over his treatment and received threats in response. While at Gulf Correctional Institution, the warden and assistant told him that if he did not stop filing grievances they would have someone “take care of him,” according to the lawsuit.
Most of the prisoners named in the lawsuit are deaf or partially so.
Although the lawsuit names FDC Secretary Julie Jones, healthcare in Florida’s prisons is administered by two private companies that were brought in under Gov. Rick Scott in an effort to privatize parts of the system. Recently, Corizon Health, the company responsible for the largest share of inmate care, decided not to renew its $1.1 billion contract with the state, leaving the future of care for 74,000 inmates in doubt.
The company’s decision came amid reports of inmate maltreatment, chronic understaffing and a rising numbers of unnatural prisoner deaths.