Supreme Court backs rights of disabled inmates Anti-bias law covers state prisons, justices rule

'Without any exception'

June 16, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- In a decision likely to bring significant change and added costs to prison operations, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that federal law protects disabled state prison inmates from discrimination.

The court, resolving a dispute that has caused deep worry among state and local governments, said the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to "public entities" -- including state prisons and local jails.

"The ADA," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a brief six-page opinion, "plainly covers state institutions without any exception that could cast the coverage of prisons into doubt."

The decision, based solely on the court's interpretation of the federal law, did leave state and local governments with a measure of hope that a further challenge might succeed: The court left undecided whether it violates the constitutional independence of states to apply the federal law to their prisons. That issue was not raised in the case.

For now, the ruling means that prison and jail authorities must accommodate inmates by altering their physical arrangements or changing their programs so that the disabled may take an equal part. Disabled federal prisoners are already protected from discrimination.

Disabled inmates want prisons to do everything from making it easier for them to use toilets and showers to rebuilding prison structures to accommodating prisoners who use wheelchairs or other equipment.

"The real problem," a group of states told the court, "is the wide breadth of claims covered under the ADA. The legislation covers just about every physical and mental ailment that an inmate could possibly have."

There are no apparent estimates of the overall cost of changing prison life to meet the federal law's demands.

"It has the potential to be costly," said James S. Turpin, legislative liaison with the American Correctional Association, a group based in Lanham that represents those who work in prisons and jails. "It's going to be costly, but I don't know the numbers."

The decision will have an immediate effect in Maryland. Thirteen physically disabled prisoners at the state's Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown have sued Maryland, claiming that that facility "is not handicap-accessible."

Their lawsuit was thrown out in September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. That court declared that federal anti-discrimination law for the disabled does not apply to state prisons. Other federal appeals courts had differed on the issue.

Carmen M. Shepard, the state's deputy state attorney general, said the Supreme Court ruling would lead to a reversal of the appeals court decision in the Hagerstown case, which is awaiting Supreme Court action on an appeal by the inmates.

The Maryland inmates' lawyer, Marjorie Rifkin of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation's National Prison Project, said: "This means that disabled prisoners will no longer be subjected to treatment that is worse than other prisoners receive."

Noting that lawsuits have been filed by disabled inmates, Rifkin said: "The prisoners in these cases are not seeking better treatment; they are seeking equal access to the same treatment."

Rifkin said the costs of obeying the law would vary, with some prisons able to make minor adjustments -- such as putting grab bars in toilet and shower stalls -- while others might have to make more costly changes to satisfy their duty to make "reasonable accommodations" for the disabled.

A coalition of state, county and city government organizations had urged the court to rule against federal protection for disabled inmates. Those groups argued that a ruling favoring the inmates would make prison operation "substantially more complex and difficult than it already is."

Prison populations, those groups said, include a high proportion xTC of people with disabilities covered by the federal law: HIV infection and AIDS, learning disabilities, mental retardation, psychological disorders, drug addiction and alcoholism.

In many states, according to those groups, administrators had placed disabled prisoners in separate facilities. Now, they said, that policy would violate federal regulations and prompt lawsuits by disabled inmates seeking to be "mainstreamed."

Maryland and 32 other states also urged the Supreme Court to insulate them from federal lawsuits from disabled inmates, saying such cases "markedly intrude" on state prison management.

Shepard, the Maryland deputy attorney general, said she did not expect the decision to lead to any major or costly modifications of state prisons. Most inmates in the state who use wheelchairs, she noted, are sent to the Roxbury facility in Hagerstown, which is built to accommodate their needs.

The 13 inmates who are suing, however, contend that their access to services, jobs and programs at Roxbury "is severely restricted by the state's failure to make adjustments to the physical plant." Among other programs closed to them, they argue, are work-release and pre-release programs in or near their home communities.

The court's ruling came in the case of Ronald G. Yeskey, a Pennsylvania inmate who has since been released after serving a sentence for drunken driving, resisting arrest and escape. Because he suffers from hypertension, Yeskey was denied admission to a motivational boot camp that can lead to early prison release.

He claimed his rights under federal law were violated. The federal appeals court agreed that the law applied to prisons. The state unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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