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Obey Law, and Common Sense

Not every prison can meet the needs of every disabled convict

September 24, 1996

In a landmark case, a federal judge has ruled that provisions of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act apply to California state prisons. The ruling, if upheld on appeal, will equalize conditions for disabled prisoners, ensuring that they will be subject to conditions no worse than those for all other prisoners. That's proper and only fair, but can there be no common sense in operation here?

The Americans With Disabilities Act is an important law. It 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. But the state, disabled rights activists and the Justice Department (which supports the new ruling) must now come up with a solution that complies with the law without insulting reasonableness and fiscal responsibility.

California operates 32 prisons, which house more than 140,000 inmates. Of that number, about 1% have mobility disabilities. The state Department of Corrections counts 141 deaf and 219 blind inmates. Given the variety of disabilities--not even including learning disabilities--no single solution at every prison would address every potential disability issue.

A Corrections Department spokesman has put the price tag for structural remedies and policy changes at $50 million. Lawyers for disabled inmates challenge that figure absent a survey on what is needed and agreement by the plaintiffs. Surely there are solutions--assuming both sides want them and not to just score ideological points--that would allow disabled inmates to have the same rights as other inmates without costing needless taxpayer dollars.

One example might be clustering inmates with a particular disability at a prison with appropriate facilities. Some accommodations, such as making strobe-light alarms available for deaf inmates, could be relatively easy to put in place. But many problems can be foreseen: As the prison population ages, more and more disabilities can be expected.

This is an issue that will not go away. Disabled prisoners should be treated no better, but no worse, than other prisoners. But that doesn't mean it makes sense to outfit every prison in California for inmates with every conceivable disability.

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