SPOTLIGHT March/April 2007 – ADA: Recognizing the Importance of Accessible Cells in Prisons

TAMPA, Fla. — Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990, it was still a hot topic at the American Correctional Association’s winter conference.

Using photographs and diagrams of existing facilities, speakers from the U.S. Department of Justice discussed the ADA’s applicability to the correctional industry and the legal requirements for prisons and jails, referring specifically to the design guide “Accessible Cells in Correctional Facilities.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the ADA?

A: The Americans with Disabilities Act is a Federal civil rights law. It gives Federal civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in State and local government services, public accommodations, employment, transportation and telecommunications.

Q: How does the ADA affect corrections/law enforcement duties?

A: Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in State and local governments services, programs and employment. Corrections and law enforcement agencies are covered because they are programs of State or local governments, regardless of whether they receive Federal grants or other Federal funds. The ADA affects virtually everything that officers and deputies do, including interrogations, arrests, booking and detention.

Q: Who does the ADA protect?

A: The ADA covers a wide range of individuals with disabilities. An individual is considered to have a “disability” if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Major life activities include caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working. To be substantially limited means that such activities are restricted in the manner, condition, or duration in which they are performed in comparison with most people.

Q: What about someone who uses illegal drugs?

A: Nothing in the ADA prevents officers and deputies from enforcing criminal laws relating to an individuals current use or possession of illegal drugs.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

The laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities protect inmates who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers and other mobility devices. Section 504 of the ADA Rehabilitation Act focuses on the design of accessible cells for inmates with mobility disabilities, ensuring that they are able to enter and inhabit their cells with minimal or no assistance.

The placement of accessible cells throughout a facility is important so that inmates with disabilities can be housed with other inmates of similar classification levels.

Accessible cells increase safety for prison personnel by minimizing the need for them to assist inmates. Elements of accessibility include: a wider entrance door, adequate plain floor space, appropriate placement and models of fixtures and furniture, and grab bars. Accessible cells need to be equipped with the same features as all other cells, such as writing desks and vanity mirrors.

The general features of an accessible room layout may be inappropriate in cases where an inmate is suicidal, but for situations where that is not a concern, the layout is basic.

Appropriate clear floor space is needed adjacent to and inside each cell so inmates may move freely. Adequate turning space within the cell is considered to be a 60-inch-diameter circle or T-shaped area, and doors are required to have 32 inches of clear opening width.

Cell bathroom features should include a lowered mirror, an accessible toilet that offers easy wheelchair transfer, rear and side grab bars around the toilet, and faucet controls and flush valves that are easily operated by a loosely closed fist. Lever-operated, push-type mechanisms and U-shaped handles are acceptable faucet controls.

There must also be proper knee and toe space at desks and toilets. Wash basin standards require a 29-inch-high clearance under the front edge of the basin, the top of the bowl must be mounted no higher than 34 inches above the floor, a 27-inch clearance for knee space extending at least 8 inches from the front of the basin, and a 9-inch-high toe space extending not more than 6 inches from the wall.

Either loose sheets of toilet paper or a traditional toilet paper dispenser that can be operated with one hand must be provided, and the paper must be placed in an accessible location.

The toilet should sit 17 to 19 inches above the floor to allow transfer from wheelchairs, 18 inches from the side wall so that the side grab bar is accessible, and placed within a 60-inch-wide by 59-inch-deep clear area of the floor so that it is approachable by a variety of wheelchairs.

Hot water and drainpipes in cells need to be insulated or configured to prevent contact and protect against burns. Some people with disabilities may have little or no sensation in their legs and may get burned without knowing it.

If mirrors are featured in cells, they need to be mounted with the bottom edge of the surface no higher than 40 inches above the floor.

When provided, desks and writing tables are required to have a 30-inch by 48-inch clear floor space that extends 19 inches under the desk, and any featured seat must be removable. The writing surfaces of the desks and writing tables should reach no higher than 34 inches, and they need to have at least 30 inches of knee width, 29 inches of knee height and 19 inches of knee depth to provide proper leg clearance.

The height of beds in accessible cell should be between 17 inches and 19 inches to facilitate easy wheelchair transfer. A 30-inch by 48-inch clear floor space will help bed transfer, and a mounted grab bar can also be situated by the bed for inmate use.

Grab bars can be designed so they do not increase suicide risk. On some bars, a metal plane runs along the bottom, attaching to the wall so that nothing can be wrapped around it during an attempted suicide. There are several ways grab bars are designed with adequate gripping surfaces while ensuring inmate safety.

As for the interior and exterior grounds of prisons, the ADA does not dictate what material need to be used; it only requires that the ground be firm, stable and slip-resistant.

Careful planning and design can incorporate all of these elements, and retrofitting a facility is another option for becoming ADA-compliant. In some cases, benches can be removed from dining hall tables to allow wheelchair accessibility, and shower benches and doors can be relocated to create improved inmate transfer.

For more information about the American Disabilities Act, visit the Department of Justice’s Web site at, or call (800) 514-0301 or (800) 514-0383 (TTY).

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