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DOJ settles disability access in Vermont prison system

October 29, 2021 GMT

WATERBURY, Vt. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a settlement with the Vermont Department of Corrections to improve conditions in the state’s prisons for inmates with disabilities, the department said.

As part of the agreement, which was made public Thursday, the Corrections Department will pay $80,000 to compensate current and former inmates who were harmed and it requires the department to make a number of structural changes to the state’s prisons to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The agreement resolves an investigation into complaints that the Vermont Corrections Department didn’t provide accessible facilities for inmates with mobility disabilities and it did not ensure effective communication for inmates with hearing disabilities.

“People with disabilities in Vermont deserve equal access, and that does not change when they are incarcerated,” Acting Vermont U.S. Attorney Jonathan A. Ophardt said in a statement. “The Vermont Department of Corrections has now committed to removing barriers to participation for inmates with disabilities in (Vermont prison) facilities, including inmates who have physical and communication disabilities.”

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Vermont Corrections Commissioner Jim Baker said in an email that the department acknowledged the system’s shortcomings and that the department is always looking for ways to improve.

“DOC was a willing partner in this, has always been at the table, and has already implemented a number of the items outlined — many of which were in place before Thursday’s agreement finalization,” Baker said Friday.

Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio, who oversees the state Prisoners’ Rights Office, said there have been accommodation issues in the prisons for years. He said the U.S. attorney’s office got involved several years ago after it became aware of a number of separate cases.

“They struggle with the fact that our prisons are old and our ability to accommodate these things on a technical level are difficult given the infrastructure that really needs to be updated,” Valerio said. “And that’s one of the really important parts of the settlement is that the department will pursue funding to improve the infrastructure.”

The Department of Justice says the agreement protects the rights of inmates to equal access to educational, counseling and recreation programs. It also ensures inmate access to prison facilities such as visitation areas, libraries, medical facilities, intake processing, accessible cells, and routes to and through prison buildings.

It also requires that Vermont provide inmates with hearing disabilities the appropriate assistance such as sign language interpreters, hearing aids and video telephones.

The agreement requires the Vermont Corrections Department to pay $80,000 to current and former inmates who were harmed. Vermont officials did not say how many inmates would be receiving a portion of the settlement.

Valerio said he thought around five inmates would be sharing the money.