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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

No Wheelchair, No Justice Say Advocates For Disabled Inmates

Thomas Hawk
Flickr -

Life in prison is no picnic. But imagine being blind or deaf or in a wheelchair behind bars.

A new report out Wednesday says state prison systems should be doing more to accommodate disabled inmates.

In the Northwest, Idaho has been sued for not providing a deaf inmate access to video phone technology. Oregon has also been under pressure to improve services for hearing impaired inmates. And a Washington inmate complained that he had to drag himself around after he was placed in segregation without his wheelchair.

Tyrone Gathings is mostly blind. When he first got to prison in Washington state, he said he didn’t have the tools he needed to navigate his new environment.

“I would go inside other people’s cells because I would get lost,” he said.

Gathings spoke in a video produced by the AVID Prison Project. AVID stands for Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities. The video is part of the new report that highlights the plight of disabled inmates in 21 states.

“Their hard time is harder.” said Rachael Seevers, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington. She said surveys show nearly a third of prison inmates have some sort of disability and that number is growing as the inmate population ages.

“Inmates shouldn’t be subject to these additional forms of punishment simply because they have a disability,” Seevers said.

The group’s report recommends stepped up monitoring of prisons for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The report does note that most prisons already have disability coordinators.


Examples of how U.S. prisons have accommodated disabled inmates following complaints:

  • Diabetic diet for Washington inmate
  • Orthotic shoes for an Iowa inmate with a foot bone disorder
  • Spill-proof mug for a Vermont inmate with Cerebral Palsy
  • Catheter supplies in the cell for a Mississippi inmate
  • Lighting control for a Connecticut inmate with severe migraines
  • Bed rails for an elderly South Carolina inmate who was falling out of bed
Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."