DOJ says Arizona prisons violated rights visually impaired inmates

PHOENIX — The Arizona prison system was found to have discriminated against inmates with vision disabilities, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

The determination was the result of a Justice Department investigation into violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

The DOJ detailed its findings in a letter to the state corrections department following an investigation of multiple complaints by incarcerated individuals.

“We hope to work cooperatively with you to resolve the Department’s findings. If ADCRR declines to enter into voluntary compliance negotiations, or if our negotiations are unsuccessful, the United States may take appropriate action, including initiating a lawsuit,” the letter says.

Arizona Corrections Director Ryan Thornell, who was appointed to his position by Gov. Katie Hobbs in January, said his adminisration was unaware of the investigation until earlier this month.

He said he’s reviewing the letter and is committed to complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I take these findings and conclusions seriously and will take any and all actions necessary to ensure compliance with the act moving forward,” he said in a statement.

How did Arizona prison system violate disability rights?

ADCRR violated and continued to violate Title II, which protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs and activities provided by state and local government entities, according to the letter.

The DOJ said the state prison system violated the ADA in three ways.

  • Failing to reasonably modify policies or provide auxiliary aids and services like Brailled materials and displays, audio recordings and screen reader software to ensure incarcerated people with disabilities could communicate effectively.
  • Failing to provide accessible processes for people with vision disabilities to request accommodations or file disability-related complaints.
  • Denying inmates with vision disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from its services, programs and activities.

The investigation was handled by the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said people with disabilities do not surrender their civil rights at the prison gate.

“The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities held in jails and prisons, including those with vision impairments, have an equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from prison programs and to work towards rehabilitation,” Clarke said in a press release.

“Ensuring that our jails and prisons are accessible for people with disabilities is part of our overall work to address the conditions of confinement in our country.”

DOJ gives details on how to address the issue

In the letter, the Justice Department provided ADCRR with its findings and detailed the following minimum remedial measures to protect people with disabilities:

  • Adopt, revise and implement relevant policies, practices and procedures to ensure ADCRR provides people with vision disabilities with effective communication and equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from department services, programs and activities.
  • Reasonably modify ADCRR policies, practices and procedures to ensure people with vision disabilities have equal access to services, programs and activities.
  • Train all employees on and ensure they comply with the requirements of Title II, its implementing regulation and ADCRR’s non-discrimination policies.
  • Designate and train employees to coordinate ADCRR’s overall efforts to comply with Title II, and employees at each ADCRR facility to coordinate that facility’s ADA compliance efforts. Staff responsibilities include coordinating appropriate and timely responses to disability-related requests and investigating and resolving ADA complaints and grievances.
  • Provide the U.S. with written status reports and information including access to facilities and files, delineating all steps taken to comply with the requirements, including dates on which each step was taken and information sufficient to demonstrate compliance.

Arizona corrections director responds to DOJ investigation

Here is state Corrections Director Thornell’s full statement in response to the Justice Department investigation:

On July 7, 2023, U.S. Department of Justice staff notified ADCRR that it had completed its nearly 2.5-year investigation into complaints from incarcerated persons with vision disabilities. This was the first time my administration was made aware of this investigation occurring. On July 19, 2023, the U.S. D.O.J. Civil Division staff met with and notified ADCRR of its conclusion that certain ADCRR policies and practices were found to not be in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. During that meeting, I expressed the Department’s commitment to review and comply with necessary actions and to work diligently to address the outlined concerns. Following the July 19 meeting, the U.S. D.O.J. Civil Division staff provided ADCRR with a letter detailing the findings and conclusions about the non-compliance that occurred under the past administration at ADCRR.

I am currently reviewing the letter and the results of the investigation, and have communicated to the U.S.D.O.J. our agency’s commitment to ensure all current ADCRR policies and practices are in full compliance with the Act. I take these findings and conclusions seriously and will take any and all actions necessary to ensure compliance with the Act moving forward.

Since I assumed my role as Director in January 2023, I have implemented a bold, new vision to rebuild the Department that places heavy emphasis on the health and well-being of each individual in our custody or on community supervision. In addition, I have been reviewing and updating our policies, many of which stem from the last ADCRR administration, to improve the overall care and services available to our population.

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