Prison officials, disabled inmates reach settlement

Florida corrections officials and lawyers for disabled inmates have settled a lawsuit accusing the state of discrimination against inmates who are blind, deaf or confined to wheelchairs.

The lawsuit detailed the plights of more than two dozen inmates who are deaf, blind or need wheelchairs or prosthetic devices but who were repeatedly denied services or assistance and who were threatened with retaliation for complaining. Some inmates were also excluded from jobs because of their disabilities, according to the complaint.

Under the settlement agreement finalized last week, the state promised, among other things, to provide sign-language interpreters for deaf inmates and to remove architectural barriers for prisoners who use wheelchairs.

“It will be a game changer for them,” Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Disability Rights Florida and more than 30 inmates last year, said during a telephone interview Monday when asked about the impact of the settlement agreement on disabled prisoners.

The complaint laid out a plethora of woes encountered by deaf inmates. In some instances, deaf prisoners waited years for their hearing aids to be repaired or replaced and were not provided American Sign Language interpreters for critical events such as medical appointments. Some deaf inmates were forced to serve as interpreters for other prisoners during doctors’ visits, possibly violating federal privacy laws. Special telephones for the hearing-impaired were often broken or unavailable, the lawyers wrote, and deaf prisoners couldn’t hear announcements, causing them to miss “critical events” such as meals.

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