Alabama Settles Lawsuit to Accommodate Inmates with Disabilities

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In early July, Alabama settled a lawsuit to make changes to accommodate inmates with disabilities at aging state prisons. The settlement was a part of a broader lawsuit over prison medical care. The settlement was technically given preliminary approval by a federal judge in June and requires some prison improvement projects as well as making sure disabled inmates have access to work and educational programs, according to the Associated Press.

The proposed settlement gives the state 32 months from final approval to “have completed all architectural barrier removal or rendition or constructed sufficient new facilities to accommodate inmates with disabilities,” according to legal documents.

The state plans to first conduct a survey of inmates with disabilities and the prison facilities in which they are incarcerated to see what obstacles currently stand in their way, the Associated Press reported. In the federal lawsuit, disabled inmates said that they were kept in facilities that couldn’t safely accommodate them and were inappropriately housed with higher security inmates because of their disabilities. The lawsuit also claimed that they didn’t have access to functioning wheelchairs as well as other programs and devices.

Alabama’s biggest issue in providing these accommodations is that most state prisons were constructed before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act passed. While not every facility will need to be updated, at least one facility at each security level would require improvements, Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Associated Press.

The settlement agreement was reached after an earlier proposal, requiring legislative approval of new prison construction, fell apart. One of the earlier settlements sited the $800 million proposal to build four new large prisons in the state, but U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson needed more specifics of the construction plan before approving it as part of the settlement. (That plan later died on May 4 when the state House failed to vote on an amended version of the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act).

The issue of accommodating disabled inmates is part of a broader lawsuit filed in 2014 by inmates over prison medical care, accusing the state of failing to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates. While the Alabama Department of Corrections agreed to settle the ADA claims, it is still disputing the accusations of substandard medical care, reported the Associated Press. The other parts of the lawsuit could go to trial in the fall if both sides are unable to settle.