Accommodating Disabled Inmates: 4 Implementation Strategies

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According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 40% of jail inmates report having at least one disability, with 30% of inmates reporting a cognitive disability and 40% having been diagnosed with a mental disorder. More than half of disabled inmates reported a co-occurring chronic condition.

Many trends contribute to the high numbers of inmates with disabilities. Jail populations mirror the general population: As a society we’re aging, and older people experience higher rates of chronic illness and physical impairment. In addition, the shift away from state psychiatric treatment facilities has left many people with serious mental illness without treatment options, increasing the chance they will end up in jail.

The goal of the ADA is the full inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of American society – including correctional facilities.

Since 1990, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has protected the rights of all Americans with disabilities, making it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. The goal of the ADA is the full inclusion of people with disabilities into all aspects of American society – including correctional facilities. The ADA imposes an affirmative duty on jails to actively ensure the accessibility of all their facilities, programs, services and activities to citizens and inmates. Failure to accommodate inmates with disabilities puts jails at considerable legal risk, while posing safety risks to inmates and correctional officers.

The identification and accommodation of individuals with disabilities in the jail setting is a team effort, requiring constant vigilance on the part of the ADA coordinator, medical and mental health staff, corrections personnel, and at times, outside stakeholders. Efficient, timely and constant communication, coordination, and responsiveness are key components of an ADA system.

Although a jail’s responsibilities under the ADA can seem daunting, there are several implementation strategies to reduce the risk of liability and ensure fair treatment of inmates in your facility:

  1. Evaluate for disabilities on intake: Medical staff should appropriately screen for individuals with disabilities during the intake process. When a disability is identified, booking or intake staff should quickly notify the ADA coordinator, the medical/mental health case management team, and the operations sergeant or appropriate supervisor to ensure the correct accommodation is made immediately.
  2. Document all your efforts: Documentation starts at intake and should continue throughout the inmate’s time in the facility. On the individual level, important documentation includes the initial assessment, documentation of the inmate’s needs, and documentation of what accommodations were provided (from time of intake to time of release). This should include why a different accommodation was made if you can’t provide the inmate’s primary choice. On an organizational level, important documentation includes activities, services and programs available to any inmate, including inmates with disabilities. The ADA coordinator should create an ADA master inmate list and ensure all relevant staff are aware of the accommodations required for inmates needing an accommodation. Jails should be able to immediately retrieve records, so compile all available information and make it easily accessible.
  3. Treat every inmate individually: Respond to individuals with a disability on a case-by-case basis – the individualized assessment is key. Recognize that one-size solutions do not fit all situations. Ask inmates what accommodations they prefer and do your best to meet their requests.
  4. Provide appropriate staff training: Also remember the importance of training on the ADA. Many states require several hours of legal training for jail officers to remain certified in their state. Consider incorporating ADA training into the legal section of any mandatory training required for your jail officers to maintain their certification. Strive for reasonableness, keeping in mind an ADA lawsuit will likely cost much more than a reasonable accommodation.

To learn four additional key areas to understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act in the corrections environment, download our white paper: Accommodating Disabled Inmates.

Linda Bryant

LINDA BRYANT, JD, CJM, was appointed by the Governor of Virginia to the Virginia Parole Board. Parachutist-qualified, she served as a Captain on active duty in the U.S. Army and a Major in the Army Reserves. For over 17 years, she prosecuted violent crime and homicides for the city of Norfolk, VA, rising through the ranks to become a Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney. In 2013, Linda was appointed to serve as Deputy Attorney General for the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Division of the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, where she oversaw the litigation of all lawsuits against the Virginia Department of Corrections. She has also served as the interim assistant superintendent and compliance attorney for a mega-jail that houses special management inmates. Currently, Linda is a consultant for Lexipol’s Corrections solutions.

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