It started, as prisoner complaints so often do, with a gripe about not being able to visit the law library.
In 2015, a prisoner at Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York contacted attorneys at Disability Rights New York, an Albany-based nonprofit, to complain that he couldn’t get access to the law library to craft an appeal in his case.
The law library at the maximum-security facility in Erie County wasn’t closed nor did it lack books; he simply wasn’t allowed in because he uses a wheelchair for mobility. Like the roughly 350 other disabled and ailing prisoners housed in the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision special medical units, prison officials wouldn’t let him visit the law library, a critical resource for prisoners looking to file lawsuits, work on their appeals, or fight disciplinary sanctions meted out by correctional officers.
Later that year, attorneys with Disability Rights New York complained to prison officials, who issued a memo stating that prisoners in the units, known as RMUs (regional medical units),could ask for a doctor’s approval to visit the law library. To date, however, only one prisoner has won that approval, according to court filings.
So Disability Rights New York began documenting other concerns of incarcerated people. It found that in addition to being barred from law library visits, prisoners at New York’s five RMUs can’t access the general population recreation yard, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or take college classes. They are barred from prison-wide events, and aren’t allowed to participate in the vast majority of the vocational programs. Attorneys with Disability Rights New York claim that the denial of services commonly available to other prisoners by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In August, the nonprofit filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of New York on behalf of three prisoners who use wheelchairs who have been denied services and programming. They are seeking class action status in the hopes of improving conditions for the prisoners housed at the RMUs who are disabled or have significant medical needs. The lawsuit is in discovery.
“Incarcerated individuals with disabilities are being denied equal access to programming simply because they have disabilities,” said Katrin Haldeman, a Disability Rights New York spokesperson. “The fact that DOCCS refuses to accommodate these individuals is a clear and blatant violation of the ADA.”
DOCCS in the crosshairs again for alleged ADA violations
It’s not the first time that DOCCS has been sued over alleged ADA violations. In 2003, a group of prisoners housed at three RMUs sued the department because they couldn’t participate in programs necessary to earn “merit time,” which allows for early release consideration.
The case was settled in 2006. According to court filings, DOCCS didn’t admit any wrongdoing but did agree to do individual assessments of people incarcerated in RMUs to determine who could participate in programming. The department also agreed to offer drug treatment—a program crucial to obtaining merit time—in the RMUs, along with two vocational programs and anger management.
DOCCS declined to comment on Disability Rights New York’s lawsuit because the litigation is pending; however, in an Oct. 2018 answer to the complaint DOCCS denied many of its key claims, including the allegation that those housed in RMUs cannot participate in programs provided to other prisoners.
As the prison population ages, RMUs rise
The New York prison system’s first RMU opened in 1991, in response to a rise in the number of incarcerated people with HIV and AIDS. The initial unit—inside the medium-security Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome—was pitched as a cost-saving measure to handle prisoners with significant medical needs without paying to transport them to an outside hospital.
As the state’s incarcerated population grew older and sicker, prison officials opened more RMUs. Five of the system’s 54 prisons—Wende, Fishkill, Coxsackie, Mohawk and the women’s prison Bedford Hills—now have RMUs. They generally look more like nursing homes than regular cell blocks, Haldeman said, with rooms lining hallways and a day room for socializing. Each unit houses between 30 and 152 prisoners.
Specific offerings at RMUs vary, but one feature is constant: medical prisoners can only participate in a fraction of the programs available to others. Incarcerated people deemed “general population” typically have access to a library, a recreation yard, a gym, prison jobs, veterans programs, a family union program, religious services, drug treatment, sex offender treatment and 12-step recovery programs. At Wende, people incarcerated in its RMU are limited to a general business vocational program, sex offender program, and drug treatment, according to Disability Rights New York’s lawsuit.
The only outdoor recreation available to them is a parking lot with rusted weights and a wooden bench, the suit says. Men in Wende’s RMU once requested a universal weight machine, which would be easier to use from a wheelchair, but prison officials refused that request, saying that their fellow prisoners could hand them the weights if they wanted to work out.
At one point, according to court papers, the Inmate Liaison Committee—a group of prisoners picked to represent prisoner interests to the administration—asked Wende officials if RMU residents could have access to the ball field in the regular rec yard. The prison denied their request, however, citing “safety & security.”
And—even though they had been sued over it before—DOCCS officials didn’t provide individual assessments required by the ADA, instead offering those locked up in RMUs a blanket refusal.
“When you come back you’ll qualify for Medicare. That’s how old you’ll be when you get out of jail.”
In 1995, Melvin Johnson, of Hamilton, New York, was sentenced to 25 years-to-life when a jury found him guilty of burglary and sodomy.
Prosecutors said Johnson broke into an 81-year-old woman’s upstate New York home and attacked her. Johnson maintained his innocence and produced three alibi witnesses who said he was at his home at the time of the break-in.”
The jury was not convinced. And J. Kevin Mulroy, a brash Onondaga County jurist who was later kicked off the bench for using racial slurs and demonstrating a “reckless disregard for the truth,” mocked Johnson’s vow to appeal his case.
“You say you’ll be back,” the judge told Johnson, then 33, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. “When you come back you’ll qualify for Medicare. That’s how old you’ll be when you get out of jail.”
Now 57, Johnson doesn’t yet qualify for Medicare, and multiple medical issues landed him in Wende’s RMU. Now he’s at the center of Disability Rights New York’s lawsuit.
Since 2015, he has been in the prison’s regional medical unit because of colon cancer and degenerative disc disease. Another plaintiff, Jamal Scott, is a paraplegic who has been on the unit since 2010. A third, Armando Torres, has end-stage renal disease. All use wheelchairs.
The men aren’t asking for money other than to cover their attorney fees.
They are just asking New York to follow federal law protecting the rights of the disabled.