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State's Prisons Told to Follow Disabilities Act


SACRAMENTO — A federal judge ruled Friday that California prisons must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a decision that could force the state to provide better wheelchair access, interpreters for deaf inmates and possibly special education for inmates with learning disabilities.

The ruling is the most far-reaching application to date of the 1990 federal law as it affects a state prison system, lawyers for the state and prisoners said. The eventual cost is disputed, but the state Department of Corrections estimates it could be more than $50 million. State officials said they intend to appeal.

California operates the largest and most costly prison system in the nation, with 32 prisons, plus camps, at an annual operating cost of $4 billion.

A survey by state prison officials in January showed that at least 1,375 of the state's 142,000 inmates are blind or deaf, use wheelchairs or need canes or other devices to walk. As the prison population ages, the number of disabled inmates is sure to rise.

"Congress indicated in the Americans With Disabilities Act that it intended to invoke its full authority under the 14th Amendment to address nationwide discrimination against the disabled," U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland wrote in her ruling.

Wilken's order came in response to the state's request that she dismiss a lawsuit by the Prison Law Office on behalf of all disabled inmates in California's prisons. The Prison Law Office is a nonprofit legal aid group based in San Rafael that defends the rights of prisoners.

The state had contended that the Americans With Disabilities Act did not apply to prisons and that the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives states immunity from lawsuits to force it to comply.

The U.S. Department of Justice entered the case on the side of the prisoners, defending the federal law in a friend-of-the-court brief and urging Wilken to apply the 1990 act to state prisons.

The act, signed into law by President George Bush, seeks to remedy discrimination against disabled people by requiring public entities and private businesses to provide the disabled with equal access to facilities and programs.

"The nation's goals are to assure equality, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency to individuals with disabilities," Wilken wrote, quoting Congress' goal in passing the act.

Department of Corrections spokesman Tipton Kindel said the cost of complying with the ruling is "probably in excess of $50 million," though lawyers for the inmates say the cost is far less.

"Their agenda is to try to minimize what the actual taxpayer cost would be," Kindel said. "We've taken a look and it depends on how far the court requires us to go. By the time everything they want is added to the Christmas tree, it could get very, very expensive for the taxpayer."

Elaine B. Feingold of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, one of the groups that helped press the suit, said it is too early to estimate the cost, and added: "All the case is about is that these people shouldn't be punished more because they are disabled."

The state has 30 days to present to the prisoners' attorneys a general plan for implementing the act in prisons. Wilken will decide any disagreements over the plan.

"The real crux of the case is that the Department of Corrections has done things to provide access. The question is what more should they do," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Peter Siggins, who argued the case for the state.

With the case charting new legal ground, several questions remain unresolved. Siggins predicted that one major issue will be whether the state must provide special education classes as part of its education program for inmates with learning disabilities.

In its newest prisons, those built after 1992, the state has included features for disabled people. But most of the 18 prisons added in the past decade do not have, for example, cells and restrooms that are wide enough for wheelchairs, or alarm systems that can alert deaf inmates.

"This is another plain example of California prison officials not following the law, even when it is clearly spelled out in exquisite detail," said Donald Specter of the Prison Law Office.

The ruling follows others in recent years that have forced the state to comply with constitutional standards for health care, mental health and other conditions in prisons.

Specter said disabled inmates often lose good-time credits because, for example, they cannot be placed quickly in prisons because of limited accessibility and cannot participate in some work programs.

As of January, the state prison system's disabled population included an estimated 350 inmates in wheelchairs, 650 who need canes or walkers, 141 who are deaf or severely hearing-impaired and 219 who are blind or nearly blind.

Not every prison will have to be brought up to federal standards. But modifications will have to be made at several facilities.

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