- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama will make changes at aging state prisons to accommodate inmates with disabilities and settle some of the claims in a broader lawsuit over prison medical care.

The settlement, which was given preliminary approval by a federal judge in June, calls for the state to make improvements at some prisons and make sure disabled inmates access to work and educational programs. The state will first conduct a survey of inmates and prison facilities to determine which inmates have disabilities and what barriers exist for them at prison facilities.

The state has 32 months from the final approval of the settlement to “have completed all architectural barrier removal or remediation or constructed sufficient new facilities to accommodate Inmates with disabilities,” according to the proposed settlement.

“They have to come up with a plan as to how they are going to make the programs accessible for people with disabilities,” Maria Morris, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “People will not be able to kept out of a programs as a result of their disability,” she said. Morris said prisoners should be able to access education programs, honor dormitories, work release and other areas.

Disabled inmates said contended in the federal lawsuit that they were kept in facilities that couldn’t safely accommodate them and were inappropriately housed with higher security inmates for no reason other than their disabilities. It also claims they didn’t have access to programs and devices, including functioning wheelchairs. During a fire, a prisoner in a wheelchair had to maneuver deeper into the prison to access a ramp to the outside, according to the lawsuit.

Morris said inmates have trouble accessing bathrooms and education and work release programs. She said one inmate who uses a wheelchair must drag himself down stairs to get into the honor dormitory where he is housed.

Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the department could not comment on the proposed settlement because it relates to on-going litigation and the settlement has not gotten final approval.

A problem for the state has been that state prisons were constructed before the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Not all prisons will have to be able to compliant with the ADA, Morris said, but she expected that at least one facility at each security level would need to be.

The settlement agreement was reached after an earlier proposal - that banked on legislative approval of new prison construction - fell apart.

An attempt at a settlement earlier this spring noted Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million to proposal to build four new large prisons and shutter most existing prison facilities. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson said he wanted to see more specifics of the plan. Lawmakers did not approve the prison construction plan in the legislative session that ended in May. However, Bentley has said he might try a special session later this year to try again.

The issue of housing for disabled inmates is part of a broader and more complicated lawsuit filed by inmates over prison medical care. A group of inmates filed a civil lawsuit in 2014 that accused the state of failing to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates.

The Department of Corrections - while agreeing to settle the ADA claims- has disputed the accusations of substandard medical care.

The remainder of the claims could go to trial in the fall. However, Thompson has asked the two sides to attempt mediation.

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