Attorneys representing four mentally retarded, learning-disabled or emotionally disturbed young inmates in Maryland prisons have asked the federal court to order the state to place them in special education programs in the prisons.
They allege that officials of the Department of Education and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services exclude 75 percent of the inmates who are entitled by federal law to special education until they are 22.
"Under federal law, every disabled child up to the age of 22 has the right to a free appropriate public education," says the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court. "That right is not extinguished by confinement" in a Maryland adult correctional facility.
The suit by the Public Justice Center Inc. is on behalf of any inmate in a situation similar to that of the four plaintiffs -- named only as Melvin C., Arthur W., Billy D. and Scott C., ages 17 to 19 -- who have been diagnosed as having various learning and emotional problems.
The suit alleges that the state's 10 adult correctional facilities and eight pre-release units fail to screen disabled prisoners to determine special education needs. It also alleges that parents or guardians are excluded from planning special education programs and that the state does not have the specially trained teachers required by law.
Of the more than 1,700 inmates younger than 22, they said, at least 400 need special education and related services and are legally entitled to them -- but fewer than 80 are currently enrolled.
Spokesmen for the education and correctional services departments said they hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment on its claims about the special education programs.
Sgt. Greg M. Shipley, speaking for the prison system, said Maryland has a mandatory education law requiring 90 days of schooling for any inmate without a high school diploma who scores below an eighth-grade reading level -- which covers about 43 percent of the prison population.
The system averages about 3,500 inmates in programs ranging from basic literacy to high school equivalency -- even college, if the inmate or a benefactor pays for it -- as well as vocational training in 38 areas, he said.
In addition to asking that U.S. District Court filing fees be waived because the inmates are poor, their attorneys are seeking a hearing to convince the court to order the state to identify all inmates who need special education; to provide, with parental participation, individual programs for those inmates as they say the law requires; and to submit a plan to be monitored by the court.