Cardew v. New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
On August 30, 2021, Disability Rights Advocates and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on behalf of people with disabilities who are incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility and have been denied mobility-related accommodations they need to get around. Read the complaint here.
Specifically, DOCCS routinely confiscates people’s mobility aids, like wheelchairs and canes, on arrival, even if they were issued by DOCCS at other facilities; refuses to replace or provide mobility aids when needed; provides broken and unusable shared wheelchairs that are difficult to access and not individualized to the needs of the person with a disability; and denies people assistants to help with cell cleaning and other tasks. Additionally, people who use wheelchairs and cannot push themselves have no reliable way to get around the facility because of DOCCS’ reliance on an ad-hoc process of calling other people who are incarcerated (known as “pushers”) to push them. People who use wheelchairs are routinely left stranded while trying to get to and from facility services and programs like meals, medical visits, phone calls, recreation, and the law library. DOCCS’ administration of the pusher program is so inadequate that people with disabilities who need pushers themselves are sometimes assigned to be pushers for others.
Plaintiffs Robert Cardew, Harrell Bonner, Philip Nelson, Melvin Johnson, and Khalik Jones have disabilities that require the use of wheelchairs and canes. Plaintiffs have experienced issues such as delays of a year or more to receive requested mobility aids, often only to receive items in disrepair and not individualized for their needs. The shared wheelchairs in Five Points are repeatedly vandalized, too big or too small, have loose wheels, ragged armrests, and missing foot rests. Mr. Bonner has used a ripped T-shirt to tie the arm of his chair to its seat. Mr. Cardew was repeatedly told that if he could not push himself to meals, he could simply not eat. Mr. Nelson frequently has no access to a wheelchair, and as a result falls five or six times a month and once broke his nose from a fall. Despite his requests for consistent access to a wheelchair and a pusher, Mr. Nelson was himself assigned to be a pusher. When called to push someone else, he would use the wheelchair’s handles as a walker to support himself. Mr. Johnson is regularly forced to push himself to and from places, even though it is dangerous and painful for him, because no one can be found to assist him. Mr. Jones requires a cane but has twice had his cane (provided by other DOCCS facilities) confiscated upon arriving at Five Points. As a result, he has fallen multiple times, including once down stairs.
DOCCS’ significant failures to provide these necessary mobility aids and services amount to unlawful discrimination against not just Plaintiffs, but a class of people with mobility-related disabilities who have been unable to safely and meaningfully navigate the facility and the programs and services it offers, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The plaintiffs and class members seek a declaration that these practices are illegal and an injunction to require DOCCS to change its policies and practices so that people with mobility disabilities at Five Points have the accommodations they need to get around the facility and access all of the programs, services, and activities that non-disabled people there can access. The plaintiffs also seek compensatory damages for the pain and suffering they have experienced as a result of this treatment.