Daniel Wolfe had only 6½ months left on his state prison sentence when he died in custody from an asthma attack.
The 24-year-old aspiring musician from Broward County suffered from chronic asthma all his life. Prison officials were well aware of his condition, but he was still housed in a dormitory farthest away from the guard station, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of his family.
As a result, his five-year term for burglary and auto theft served at the Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont might as well have been a death sentence.
Wolfe had several attacks while in state Department of Corrections custody, according to the 2010 lawsuit filed in federal court.
During one attack, Wolfe was left unattended for 30 minutes. He turned blue and had no pulse before being resuscitated. The next time he wasn’t so lucky. In August 2006, another attack took his life.
His family sued the state for wrongful death and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Inmate advocates, such as at the Florida Justice Institute in South Florida, say even prisons must adhere to the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which addresses the right of disabled people in institutions that receive federal money.
“Even though the Florida Justice Institute has been pressing Section 504 and later the ADA since the ’80s for prisoners, Congress, the courts and the public are more receptive than ever for the legal rights of the disabled, and our docket of ADA cases for prisoners reflects these advances in the law,” said Randall Berg Jr., executive director of the Miami-based institute.
“The department says they have the ADA down pat, but that’s not true,” Berg said. “It is a major problem. There are lot of problems for asthmatic inmates, deaf inmates, for blind inmates and a lot of paraplegic inmates who need wheelchair access.”
The department did not return calls for comment by deadline on ADA issues.
Berg said it’s easy to dismiss claims by disabled inmates, but he said it’s clear the department has a legal responsibility to follow the ADA.
“No one is above the law. We expect prisoners to serve time for breaking the law, and those charged with keeping them to comply with the law,” he said.
Berg is no stranger to pressing ADA claims on behalf of prisoners. He said he helped try a case in the 1990s on behalf of a paraplegic inmate at Florida State Prison in Starke who fell in the shower and shattered a hip.
His institute’s website has a photo of a woman in a wheelchair stuck at the bottom of a set of courthouse steps. The issue has gained more attention in recent years, Berg said.
In Southern California, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit on behalf of disabled inmates in Los Angeles County.
“Conditions in the L.A. County jails are generally abysmal, but those facing inmates in wheelchairs or with other mobility problems can be absolutely barbaric,” ACLU staff attorney Jessica Price said after a federal judge in October approved class certification.
The Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin also has filed several cases ranging from lawsuits on mental health issues to lack of wheelchair ramps in prisons to a class action on behalf of deaf inmates.
“Prisons need to be held to the standards that the law has set for over 20 years now,” said Scott Medlock, director of the project’s prisoner rights program.
The spigot opened for ADA lawsuits in 2006 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the 1990 law extended to people held in state prisons and protected inmates from discrimination on the basis of disability. Georgia inmate Tony Goodman maintained he was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day because he was confined to a wheelchair. He also argued his cell was too narrow for him to maneuver, causing a host of health problems.
Two years later, Congress broadened the definition of ADA-protected disabilities after courts narrowly construed the meaning in a number of cases. “And that is why you are seeing an uptick in more cases under the ADA for the general public as well as for prisoners,” Berg said.
Level Of Care
For example, he said there is no debate that schizophrenic inmates fall under the ADA.
“Mental illness is a disability, and if they fail to provide the inmate reasonable accommodation it violates the ADA,” he said.
Besides the Wolfe case, Berg said he also filed a lawsuit on behalf of a hearing-impaired inmate in the Northern District of Florida. A $250,000 settlement is pending court approval.
The Corrections Department settled with an agreement to install radio transmitters for televisions in several institutions and permission for inmates to have hearing aids, he said.
He also settled a case for the family of Rommell Johnson, who died at 45 of an asthma attack at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley.
Johnson, who was serving a 40-year sentence as a habitual defender from Miami-Dade County, had an asthma attack June 3, 2010. When he called guards for help, it was determined he was being nuisance, and chemical agents were used twice to subdue him. The irritants brought on another asthma attack, this time fatal.
“Rommell was alone in his locked cell. Rommell was not hurting himself, or threatening to hurt himself or another person. Rommell was not destroying property,” the lawsuit stated.
The second time he was sprayed, Johnson was coughing and hacking, apparently to the irritation of the guards, the lawsuit said. The medical examiner said his body and clothing were covered with the residue of the chemical agents.
His family settled its lawsuit for $175,000.
Kristen Cooley Lentz, an attorney with Florida Institutional Legal Services in Newberry who represented Johnson’s family, said the growing number of ADA claims on behalf of prisoners is the result of advocates moving from larger issues to individual ones.
“Our focus was large systemic issues related to conditions of confinement, and I think now we are starting to focus on specific issues, such as what you find in some of these ADA cases,” she said.
The hope, she said, is that if the state pays enough ADA claims, it will filter down to the rank-and-file to take better care of disabled inmates.
“Regardless of why these people are in these institutions, they are still human beings, and there is still a level of care,” Lentz said.
In Wolfe’s case, she said he could have been released and been a productive member of society. “And now that opportunity has been lost,” Lentz said.