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Blind Md. inmates file lawsuit alleging discrimination

Daniel Goldstein, Attorney with Brown Goldstein and Levy, LLP (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

‘To force prisoners who are blind to be dependent on other inmates not only violates their dignity, but puts them in terrible danger of exploitation and abuse,’ says Daniel Goldstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs. ‘These men are capable of living independently, and the law gives them that right.’ (File photo)

Nine blind inmates and former inmates at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown have filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, alleging they were discriminated against due to their blindness and denied access to prison services that other inmates were able to use.

The alleged discrimination also put the plaintiffs’ safety in danger because it forced them to rely on help from sighted inmates for accessing everything from law books in the prison library to prison mail services, according to the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week.

“To force prisoners who are blind to be dependent on other inmates not only violates their dignity, but puts them in terrible danger of exploitation and abuse,” said Daniel Goldstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a release. “These men are capable of living independently, and the law gives them that right.”

Stuart M. Nathan, counsel for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday on the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs are unable to access the Inmate Handbook or access orientation materials covering their rights and responsibilities at the prison, exposing them to potential disciplinary action for unknowingly violating the rules, according to the suit.

Blind inmates also are unable to participate in the administrative grievance process or effectively pursue claims in state or federal court because they cannot access the prison library’s research materials independently and privately, the suit states.

“Plaintiffs have been forced to pay sighted inmates in cash or commissary items to receive help with the grievance and court processes and to access the benefits of the library,” the suit states. “Plaintiffs have been unable to initiate or continue the grievance or court processes because no sighted inmate would help them or because they cannot afford the help or risk disclosing personal information, including the nature of their underlying conviction, to another inmate.”

Prison staff members have retaliated against sighted inmates who have helped the plaintiffs by shortening their recreational or shower time and transferring them out of jobs, the suit states. The plaintiffs have also faced retaliation, including harassment and threats, for filing lawsuits against DPSCS.

Blind inmates have been discriminated against in prison work programs, in which they were relegated to lower-paying jobs that offer fewer opportunities for vocational training, as well as in educational programming, the complaint states. DPSCS refused to hire a professional Braille instructor, and the blind inmates were denied reasonable modifications, such as additional time for taking exams.

Because the blind inmates are housed together at Roxbury, the plaintiffs have been denied their right to be incarcerated in the least restrictive environment allowed by their individual security levels, the suit alleges.

Some of the plaintiffs have also been forced to share a cell with another prisoner, despite the risk to their safety and well-being, the suit states.

“Blind inmates can be more vulnerable to theft and less able to forestall or defend against attacks when housed in cells with other inmates,” the suit states. “Blind inmates are more vulnerable to acts of aggression when housed in cells with other inmates, because their cellmates may be provoked by their disability and behavior resulting from their disability, including bumping into a cellmate or a cellmate’s possessions or failing to notice and clean up a mess, and because blind inmates may be perceived as more vulnerable.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, among other counts, and seeks $200,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages, along with an injunction preventing the defendants from discriminating against blind inmates.

The plaintiffs are represented by Goldstein, Joshua Treem and Abigail Graber of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore, and Stephen Meehan and Damien Dorsey of the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc.

The case is Anthony Blue et al. v. Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services et al., 1:16-cv-00945-RDB.


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