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The Appeal Podcast: Prisoners With Disabilities Fight for Equal Rights

With Appeal contributor Keri Blakinger

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In the public mind, incarcerated people are often better left in the darkunseen and unconsidered. That’s especially true when it comes to prisoners with disabilities, who suffer from both the routine cruel conditions of America’s prisons and a widespread non-compliance in those prisons with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our guest this week, Appeal contributor Keri Blakinger, joins us to discuss an ongoing lawsuit in New York State and the broader movement across the country to give prisoners with disabilities access to the same facilities and opportunities as everyone else.

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Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page, @TheAppealPod on Twitter and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on iTunes.

In the public mind, incarcerated people are better left kept in the dark, unseen, and unconsidered. This is probably no more true than when it comes to prisoners with disabilities who suffer from both the routine cruel conditions of America’s prisons and a widespread noncompliance in those prisons with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Our guest this week, Appeal contributor Keri Blakinger, joins us to discuss an ongoing lawsuit in New York state and the broader movement across the country to give prisoners with disabilities access to the same facilities and opportunities as everyone else.

[Begin Clip]

Keri Blakinger: So the prisoners, you know, sometimes many of them in wheelchairs, they still would, in the free world, have the ability to go places but in prison just because of the way that they run these RMUs and security and how they choose to handle it, they’re not leaving the units at all. And as a result they don’t get access to the vast majority of the programming that other inmates get.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for joining us.

Keri Blakinger: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So you wrote an excellent piece in The Appeal called “Disabled Prisoners Decry Treatment in New York’s Prison System.” This was really the first time that I really kind of heard about the Americans with Disabilities Act in the context of prisons, which seems obvious, but is not something people talk a lot about. The impetus of this article was a lawsuit that was filed by Disability Rights New York. Can you tell us about the lawsuit, it’s current status and what the kind of broader implications of this and other lawsuits are?

Keri Blakinger: Yeah, so in this case the lawsuit was about prisoners in the regional medical units known as RMUs. There’s five prisons in New York with RMS, which is like sort of like a hospice type like long term care for people with significant medical needs.

Adam: Right.

Keri Blakinger: So the prisoners, you know, sometimes many of them in wheelchairs, they still would, in the free world, have the ability to go places, like they’re not necessarily at the level of care where they wouldn’t be able to leave at all, but in prison just because of the way that they run these RMUs [regional medical units] and, you know, security and how they choose to handle it, they’re not leaving the units at all. And as a result, they don’t get access to any of the programming or the vast majority of the programming that other inmates get. So, you know, other inmates can go to a rec yard, you know, with grass, a baseball field and they can go to, sometimes there’s, you know, facility wide events and they can go to college classes, AA meetings, church, some vocational programming. But all those things required leaving the unit. And because the prisoners in the RMUs aren’t permitted to leave the units, they don’t get access to those kinds of programs. There’s one or two in each of the facilities that they do get access to the programs that can easily come into the unit. But, you know, they’re still not getting access to the vast majority of things including, you know, college classes, rec yard. And that becomes an ADA issue because it means that these inmates are not getting access to specific programs and services that nondisabled inmates would have access to.

Adam: Right. And that’s really where the rubber hits the road. You mentioned in your report that there’s sort of real consequences, and you sort of briefly touched on this, there’s real consequences to people not being able to access certain things. It’s not just an issue of being able to do the things themselves, but oftentimes it makes getting early release more difficult. In your reporting, what have you found, to kind of establish the stakes for the listener, what are the sort of second order harms that are being done to people with disabilities in prisons who are unable to attend things like AA meetings or classes?

Keri Blakinger: I mean I think that for one in terms of AA meetings and classes, I mean that’s also about mental health and recovery. So I mean you’re also limiting their ability to sort of deal with the issues that got them into prison in the first place. But one of the things they don’t get access to is the law libraries, which can have a very real impact on the amount of time they spend in prison because obviously it impacts your ability to file an adequate appeal. It also is your only resource in terms of how to handle grievances and disciplinary issues. So if you’re trying to fight a disciplinary case that could impact your ability to make parole, then you would also need access to the prison library in a lot of cases. And then of course it’s pretty standard in many prison systems that some participation in programs has some sort of impact on your ability to be released. Now, in New York, you do have access to some of the bare minimum programs that you would need in order to make your parole. And as a sort of aside, and your parole is kind of complicated in terms of what specifically you need to make parole depends on what you’re diagnosed as needing when you come in and also the type of sentence that you have. So you know, not everyone needs the same program access in order to make parole. But in 2003 a different group of inmates in an RMU filed a suit over not being able to make parole because they weren’t getting access to the programs that they needed to complete to make parole. And that settled in 2006 and, you know, the solution was that then they subsequently had some access to programs. Just not very many. I mean I think they have access to like the business vocational class, which is using, you know, 20 year old computers with no Internet access. So one might say that’s a minimally useful program to begin with. I could keep going but I think those are some of the big things that people think of in terms of like release and ability to file lawsuits or grievances.

Adam: Yeah. You talked about the lawsuit of Melvin Johnson and the co-plaintiffs, correct me if I’m wrong, they’re from the same RMU and they sued?

Keri Blakinger: Yes. They’re all in the same one. Yep.

Adam: Right. So is that the 2003 case or is that the recent case that you reported?

Keri Blakinger: That is the recent case. He was locked up in like the mid nineties but he is part of the recent case.

Adam: It’s Jamal Scott, Armando Torres and Melvin Johnson. I guess they got together and sued because they were in the same RMU. What was the nature of that case? Cause I think sometimes it’s good to sort of put a face on these problems so they don’t seem abstract.

Keri Blakinger: Right. Well in this case they were specifically suing over lack of access to the same programs and opportunities that nondisabled prisoners would have. They were not focusing on the parole issues, that was sort of dealt with in the previous lawsuit in 2003. They were focusing on that it’s simply an ADA violation to have services that could reasonably be made available to disabled inmates and choosing not to make them available. Prisons are not expected to do things that are unreasonable, has to be a reasonable accommodation and you know, something that they’re alleging that this would be possible. So you know, they’re asking for things like rec access and access to the law library. And they did initially when they started looking at this when a different guy wrote to the Disability Rights New York lawyers and this was in 2015 he wrote and said, ‘hey, I can’t get to the law library, they’re not letting me go.’ When that happened the Disability Rights New York lawyers tried to resolve it without a lawsuit and they went to DOCCS [Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] and said, ‘hey, this is happening, can you deal with this?’ And DOCCS send out a memo saying, ‘okay, everyone evaluate people individually, like we need doctors to evaluate the RMU inmates individually if they’re requesting to go to the law library and we can decide if this is feasible.’ And since then, according to the lawsuit, only one person has actually been approved to physically go to the law library. So-

Adam: So, just real quick, for those who don’t know, DOCCS is the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in New York. Okay.  Just to clarify, sorry, go ahead.

Keri Blakinger: So in the past three, four years, that memo doesn’t really seem to have had much impact from what the lawsuit is alleging.

Adam: One thing you note, which I think is interesting, it’s something we’ve talked about before on the show, is that the population of the prisons is aging. It’s getting older. And in correlation with that there’s more of these regional medical units that are popping up. To what extent is this lack of accommodation to people with disabilities and ADA, to what extent do you think it’s sort of like a ticking time bomb in terms of prisons are now basically becoming, for lack of a better term, old folks homes in many ways. Do you see there being sort of like a major lawsuit that kind of maybe gets kicked up to a higher court that settles this once and for all? Or do you think is this going to be done through piecemeal?

Keri Blakinger: I think the aging prison population presents a lot of different issues that result in lawsuits. So, I mean, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to deal with it all in one place short of shorter sentencing. I mean, cause we see this in Texas too. You know, my main job is as a reporter for The Houston Chronicle so I primarily cover Texas. And you know, here we just had a big class action lawsuit that took a few years over air conditioning because, you know, it’s Texas, it’s hot.

Adam: I was born in Houston. It’s not fun.

Keri Blakinger: (Laughs.)n Well I mean see for me, after all those years in the northeast, I’m quite glad to have warm weather, but I would not want to have done time in that.

Adam: Fair enough.

Keri Blakinger: And, you know, there was a class action lawsuit here over not air conditioning a unit that had a lot of medically needy prisoners and it was known as the geriatric unit. Like that was part of the issue that you have these medically needy geriatric prisoners and you know, and that cost the prison system a lot of money and, and, you know, there would be some people that would be a deemed heat sensitive even if it wasn’t an older population. But you’re going to have more of those people as you have an aging prison population. We also see issues with people not being able to get enough wheelchairs or if you have a lot of inmates in wheelchairs, then they typically can’t be on top bunks and then you have a problem that maybe there’s not enough bottom bunks available. So, I mean it presents a whole lot of different issues. I mean, I wrote about dentures here, like they weren’t giving inmates dentures and they were just, you know, making, in Texas this is, they were, you know, making them gum their food. And again, that’s an issue, you know, you’re going to see more toothless inmates and you’re going to have to pay for more dentures if you have an older prison population. So, I mean, I think it just presents a whole bunch of different issues. I mean, I’m not sure that there is a single lawsuit that would address all of them.

Adam: Right. Cause I, yeah, we did a whole episode on healthcare and, uh, Angola Prison specifically and it’s a, it’s a total nightmare. And I, it just seems like it’s the last thing anyone wants to ever pay for. If it’s not for like actual outright human rights lawsuits, nothing ever changes.

Keri Blakinger: Right. Well, I wonder if the changes will come more in terms of like parole reform.

Adam: Right. Yeah. Making sure that we’re not gratuitously putting 80 year olds in prison for, yeah. I mean not that all prison sentences aren’t to some extinct gratuitous, but yeah, it’s the aging population of prisons is such an issue. It even was an Op-Ed in The New York Times a few months ago. So it’s, it’s getting more mainstream attention. To what extent are sort of mainstream disability activists talking about this, or is this more of a kind of fringe thing in that world? Or is it coming more from prison reform spaces? From your research?

Keri Blakinger: I mean, I feel like there’s not a lot of discussion about these things in any of those spaces. It’s these Disability Rights attorneys in New York. There’re similar entities like that in other states, and you tend to see those and sometimes like ACLU type groups on these lawsuits. But prison lawsuits are not easy for a number of reasons legally and in these sorts of situations it’s also not a whole lot of people impacted. There’s 350 people in RMUs. So in terms of affecting large populations it may not be the most attractive thing to go after. It’s something that I feel like doesn’t get a lot of attention in any of those worlds that, you know, it happens sometimes you see some lawsuits but, you know, a lot of the focus when it comes to prisons has never been as much on conditions. It’s been more on sentences.

Adam: Yeah. That would obviously ameliorate a lot of this. Yeah. Once again, the, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 rears its ugly head. It keeps coming up on this show.

Keri Blakinger: Yup.

Adam: There’s no real mechanism to hold anyone accountable cause no one has any standing really. From your estimation, what groups are working on this trying to kind of move the needle on trying to fix this problem to the extent they can?

Keri Blakinger: Well. Um, I mean in New York Disability Rights New York has been on this suit, they’ve been on some other suits. And in Texas there’s the Texas Inmate Family Association, which has really kept their finger on the pulse on a lot of these issues. But I mean, they’re not, you know, they’re an advocacy group. They’re not lawyers, they’re not filing the suits. And then, you know, we have the lawyers that, in Texas here, we have the lawyers that filed the heat litigation suit that do a lot of prison litigation here, you know, and then in New York, I mean there’s the Correctional Association of New York does a lot of advocacy work. They do a lot of good work and then they have a lot of overlap with CAIC, C-A-I-C, [Campaign for Alternative to Isolated Confinement] they focus on solitary issues mostly. Probably only would really be working the disability space to the extent that it overlaps with solitary. So yeah, I mean, those have been some of the names that I’m seeing.

Adam: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for coming on. This was extremely informative for something that basically no one talks about ever, so we’re glad to do it. That’s kind of the point of the show, so I really appreciate the work you’ve done and I look forward to reading about it more as the case keeps progressing.

Keri Blakinger: Thanks for having me.

Adam: Thanks to our guest, Keri Blakinger. Remember, you can always follow The Appeal on Facebook at The Appeal’s main Facebook page, on Twitter @TheAppealPod and as always, you can subscribe and like us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production Assistant Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.