Disabled inmates' right to sue prisons is upheld

Federal appellate ruling stems from 1991 suit filed for Roxbury prisoners

June 26, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

In a decision that could spur more prisoner lawsuits against the state, a federal appeals court has ruled that Maryland inmates have the right to sue for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a 2-1 ruling Thursday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the constitutionality of the ADA as it applies to inmates housed in state-run prisons.

The ruling stems from a 1991 lawsuit filed by the Washington-based American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project on behalf of 13 physically disabled inmates at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Lane-Weber said her office has not decided whether to appeal. But she said the court's decision should have limited impact in Maryland.

"The state has always accommodated disabled inmates and has made many efforts to make sure that disabled inmates are safe in prisons," Lane-Weber said. "We think we are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act."

Marjorie L. Rifkin, an attorney with the ACLU project, said the lawsuit involved the accessibility to services and facilities of prisoners who use wheelchairs.

"This is about access to toilets and showers," Rifkin said. "We're not talking abut frivolity here. We're talking about basic services. Hopefully, our clients will be back before the trial judge nine years after they sued to determine whether the state's attempts to modify the facility were enough to ensure their access."

Lane-Weber said the state has made improvements to the Roxbury facility over the years to make it more accessible to disabled prisoners.

"When her [Rifkin's] clients made complaints, every situation was addressed," Lane-Weber said. "Her clients were not discriminated against and they weren't harmed."

Len Sipes, spokesman for the state Division of Correction, conceded that the federal appeals court's ruling could mean more prisoner lawsuits against the state. But he said state officials believe they are in compliance with the ADA and are confident that they will win any suits that are filed.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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