CDOC’s failure to accommodate compromises safety and privacy of blind people and excludes them from most programming.
Incarcerated people are one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States. Blind incarcerated people are even more at risk when prisons fail to provide the accommodations and technology necessary for them to be safe and have equal access to facility programs.
Brian Christopher Mackes and Adrian Chávez are two blind men serving time in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC). CDOC has routinely denied them access to the aids and services needed to participate in educational programming, work assignments, and recreation, and has failed to provide them with effective communication of the materials and information the Department provides prisoners in written form, for example, regulations, handbooks, grievance forms, menus, and the “titler” system that broadcasts written announcements on the bottom of prisoners’ television sets. These are just a few examples of CDOC’s discriminatory treatment of its blind incarcerated population.
Today, CREEC and the Baltimore law firm of Brown Goldstein & Levy filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado on behalf of Mr. Mackes, Mr. Chávez, and the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado (NFB-CO). The suit alleges that CDOC is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which require that CDOC provide all inmates with equal access to programs and services, including access to written communications, legal research, and educational and vocational programming. CDOC has repeatedly failed in delivering on this mandate, denying its blind incarcerated population access to necessary programs and activities.
“CDOC forces blind prisoners to rely on other prisoners to read and write their mail – including personal and legal correspondence – as well as messages to prison medical staff,” said Scott LaBarre, President of the NFB-CO. “This forces our clients and others to share private family and medical information that sighted prisoners can keep to themselves.”
The lawsuit seeks systemic relief for all blind incarcerated people in CDOC’s custody, as well as compensatory damages on behalf of Mr. Mackes and Mr. Chávez. It comes just one month after Disability Law Colorado, represented by CREEC and the University of Denver Civil Rights Clinic, filed suit against CDOC on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners, and almost 30 years after CDOC was the subject of a class action lawsuit on behalf of all disabled prisoners.
“We are disappointed that, in the more than 30 years since the ADA was passed and almost 50 years after the Rehabilitation Act was passed, CDOC’s approach to blind, deaf, and hard of hearing prisoners remains disorganized and discriminatory,” said Amy Robertson, CREEC’s Co-Executive Director.
“These blind inmates do not seek special treatment,” said Eve Hill, of Brown Goldstein & Levy. “They seek only equal and independent access to the same facilities, services, and privileges that are available to other inmates.”