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November 8, 2005 - Associated Press (US)

Disabled Prisoners at Issue in High Court

By Errin Haines, AP

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

ATLANTA -- Tony Goodman says that when he tried to hoist himself from his wheelchair onto the toilet in his cramped prison cell one day, he slipped, fell onto the floor and suffered a seizure, breaking a toe and crushing his right knee.

Months later, he says, he broke his foot and crushed the other knee during another attempt.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether the 41-year-old disabled inmate can sue the state of Georgia for his injuries and suffering.

A ruling in his favor could open cash-strapped prison systems across the country to costly lawsuits from disabled prisoners. And that prospect could force aging prison systems to move faster and spend millions to become handicapped-accessible.

Goodman is accusing the Georgia Department of Corrections of intentional neglect under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 federal law requiring that many businesses and buildings take reasonable steps to accommodate disabled people.

Goodman is serving a 15-year sentence for a 1995 cocaine conviction and an aggravated assault that occurred three years after he injured his spine in a car accident. In court documents, Goodman is described as paraplegic.

He said that guards did not give him the help he needed to use the bathroom and showers at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville and that his cell was too cramped, rendering him virtually immobile for as much as 23 hours a day.

The Corrections Department, however, contends Goodman is not as disabled as he claims to be and did not need extra help or specialized quarters. In fact, prosecutors said that during the assault that landed him in prison, Goodman got out of his wheelchair and beat his girlfriend.

"He's ambulatory. He can walk and he does," said William Amideo, an attorney for the Corrections Department. Goodman was transferred to a medical prison after filing his lawsuit in 1999.

The Supreme Court has ruled that inmates are protected by the ADA, and disabled prisoners can sue state agencies to correct conditions at prisons. The question before the court is whether inmates also can sue for compensation for their suffering.

During the 1990s, many prison systems retrofitted themselves to comply with the ADA, including widening cells, installing grab bars near toilets and in showers, and lowering sinks and faucets, said New York City architect Barbara Nadel, who specializes in prison design. A lot of departments also have built new prisons.

Amideo said Georgia's prison system would not have to make many changes as a result of the lawsuit, since many facilities were upgraded during the 1990s. Goodman's complaint is centered on his time as an inmate from 1995 to 1999 at the state's oldest prison, which was built in 1937 and has not been upgraded since 1979.

Amideo, the Corrections Department attorney, estimated 2,000 of Georgia's 50,000 prison inmates have some disability, and said they are all accommodated.

"We don't assign individuals to prisons, cells or cellblocks where they can't function," he said. "Somebody wouldn't be assigned to that facility if they weren't able to handle whatever the conditions were."

Across the country, about 2 million people are behind bars, though exactly how many are disabled is unclear. States have complained that the federal law has led to unreasonable inmate demands, but prisoner advocates say the threat of damages is needed to force states and local governments to comply and do so promptly.

"It is possible to provide the kind of access that people with disabilities need and still run a prison system," said Joan Magagna, director of the National Disability Rights Network based in Washington.

On the Net: Georgia Department of Corrections:

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