While I was in Level II I lived in a handicap accessible housing unit. Seeing wheelchairs, white canes, TTY telephones, special showers and toilet stalls were the telltale signs that people with disabilities were present. With the aging population in Michigan prisons it’s not unexpected that there would be physically infirm seniors that required walkers or wheelchairs for mobility, but there were also single and double leg amputees. While not surprising that there are people from all walks of like, I wondered how those who couldn’t walk got there.
Prison is a place full of people seeking to exploit even perceived weaknesses to their advantage, so it doesn’t help to have those weaknesses clearly advertised. There also isn’t much in the way of empathy from the officers and staff, it is prohibited by policy and tends to be lacking by disposition for those who work in a place like this. This combination of inmates and staff makes a dangerous environment even more difficult for those who struggle with the basic, necessary activities of life.
One of the men I met there had lost both of his eyeballs to a childhood cancer. It was incredible enough that he was convicted of a heinous crime but to see what a blind man had to contend with in prison was heartbreaking. He was a person who had overcome his disability by learning to read Braille, college educated, and lived relatively independently. I watched him navigate from his cell across the yard to the chow hall, the school building, or medical with little or no assistance. The issue wasn’t what he could do for himself but what he wasn’t allowed to. He was actively fighting his conviction and the conditions of his incarceration. In the world he had access to technology that would allow him to process information. In prison he was forced to rely on an inmate to read his mail, including his legal mail that contained sensitive information regarding his criminal case.
The law library could not accommodate him because they would not provide legal text in Braille. In essence he was denied the ability to fully mount his appeal, which is a denial of his civil rights. He wasn’t one to take his setbacks lying down, so he fought the librarian and the administration tooth and nail for both the basic tools he needed and his own dignity. The courts have ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to prisons with considerations of safety and security limitations. However, in a place where logic and reason don’t apply it shouldn’t be a surprise that federally guaranteed rights like the ADA would be denied.
He contacted the Department of Justice ADA division in Washington D.C. and they tried to send him the relevant statutes in books on tape format. The mailroom would not deliver the tapes because they didn’t come from an approved vendor. They also claimed that the letter head on the enclosed documents was fake! Over and over they found any excuse they could to deny this man. He fought back by filling grievances, escalating to Step 2 and Step 3, as they were denied and dismissed repeatedly, going all the way to the Ombudsman in Lansing.
I have noticed that those who complain about their incarceration the most are singled out for retribution, abuse, and neglect. Rather than take the complaints seriously it is easier to dismiss the messenger, saying “they” are only inmates. I don’t know what happened to this blind crusader, but I’m sure that where ever he is he is still fighting the good fight. Why would anyone want to make life more difficult for someone who already has more to overcome than just being a felon. All he wanted was a fair hearing.
Being deaf poses a different set of difficulties. There were two guys, one who was hearing impaired but could function with hearing aids and was fluent in sign language. The second was deaf and could only communicate through signing. While I was in Level II with them the pair was inseparable for obvious reasons.
The officers and staff communicate verbally and relied on the first inmate to communicate with the second. For official communication there was a state translator, just as when a Spanish speaking inmate needed someone to translate at hearings. This person wasn’t on site but had to be brought in special for hearings like parole interviews or disciplinary hearings. One day after I had been moved to Level I, I ran into the first hearing impaired innate. I asked him how the second deaf inmate was doing. He just shook his head. When they moved him, there wasn’t anybody to take his place looking out for the deaf man and we both understood how difficult his situation was.
When you are deaf you can’t hear the CO calls your name over the PA system to come to the officer’s podium, or at count time to get on your bunk. Unless the officer was a regular unit officer aware of his situation he might be ignored or mistreated. In prison you have to look out for yourself since no one else will. But when you have a disability you don’t have that ability. In a place where you learn not to trust others, they are forced to. And when by some miracle you find someone you can trust to help you and the system takes that assistance away, it is a cruel and unfair punishment.
Not long ago I read in the news that legislation had been put forward that provide a mechanism for elderly and severely infirm inmates that posed no risk to the community to be transferred to a nursing home facility. I’ve been saying this for several years and it would seem like a no-brainer. There is a geriatric facility for these inmates, but I understand the conditions there are really bad and they have a hard time recruiting inmates to go there to serve as care givers to assist the inmates sent there to die. I really can’t imagine a tougher position to fill.
I was also not surprised to read the negative response this legislation received from the Attorney General and victim advocates who claim that any early release, regardless of the reason was an injustice. All of this just goes to prove that prison isn’t about handing out punishment to suite the crime, it is about vengeance. Inmates are not seen as individual human beings but as numbered animals that don’t have any civil or human rights. Whether the sentence is 2 years flat or life without the possibility of parole we are still talking about basic standards of care. The burden of support to maintain that level of basic care is placed upon the state. There are only two valid options: Either the state is committed to bearing that cost burden and fulfilling its obligation to care for those wards placed into its charge. Or let some go and only hold on to those who truly are a danger to society. Not everyone in prison is, not even those who are convicted of a violent crime are. Inmates must be individually assessed and then treated fairly according to a plan, not just lumped into a faceless mass where it is easy to overlook their humanity. The MDOC has chosen a 3rd way which is unacceptable and outrageous. They cling to discredited and outdated policies and procedures that threaten the wellbeing of those they claim to be rehabilitating.
As an update to this essay, an article published in the February 26, 2017 Detroit Free Press stated that a Federal Judge in Detroit has ruled that the MDOC for years has violated the ADA. Specifically, a lawsuit brought by Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service representing deaf and hearing imparted prisoners proved that the department routinely violated the prisoner’s rights under ADA. It only took the incarceration of a blind social worker who wrote letters to legislators and others regarding the situation to gain traction. Then the MDOC as it always does in a too little too late attempt to avoid the looming lawsuit issued a policy directive and started to institute changes to avoid the inevitable. While the court has not yet finalized the consent judgement it is likely that the department will have a federally appointed monitor for two years to oversee the necessary changes that must be implemented in order to bring the department into compliance with the ADA.
This was not the first lawsuit brought against the MDOC in relation to violations of the ADA. It was simply the first successful class action. The MDOC is no stranger to having a federally appointed monitor, there has been one in place since the 1980’s when a class action lawsuit regarding prison health care showed how poorly prisoner health was being managed by the department. This really does raise the question, why is it so difficult to get people to believe when prisoners make claims about the abuses that they suffer at the hands of their captors?