U.S. finds AZ prisons discriminate against blind and partially sighted inmates

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2023 - 5:26pm
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Federal investigators say Arizona’s prison system illegally discriminates against inmates who are blind or partially sighted.

The state Corrections director said his administration first learned of the federal review that went on for more than two years about two weeks ago.

The Justice Department found that people with blindness or low vision in Arizona prisons didn’t have access to materials in Braille. There’s no process for those inmates to request aid or file disability-related complaints. And the Department of Corrections over-relies on untrained prisoners to help their blind peers.

Arizona has to give these inmates equal services, said Gary Restaino, U.S. attorney for Arizona.  

“It has an added impact we believe in more successful outcomes when people inevitably leave the corrections system,” Restaino said. 

A nine-page letter from the Justice Department identifies five ways the state can correct itself.

Federal oversight of implementation will be done via partnership with the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C.

“We think that we have a role to play in being the local presence and certainly look forward to being part of the discussions with Dr. Thornell and his team to improve things,” said Restaino.

State Corrections officials released a prepared statement attributed to Director Ryan Thornell.

“On July 7, 2023, U.S. Department of Justice staff notified ADCRR that it had completed its nearly 2.5-year investigation into complaints from incarcerated persons with vision disabilities. This was the first time my administration was made aware of this investigation occurring. On July 19, 2023, the U.S.D.O.J. Civil Division staff met with and notified ADCRR of its conclusion that certain ADCRR policies and practices were found to not be in compliance with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. During that meeting, I expressed the Department’s commitment to review and comply with necessary actions and to work diligently to address the outlined concerns. Following the July 19 meeting, the U.S. D.O.J. Civil Division staff provided ADCRR with a letter detailing the findings and conclusions about the non-compliance that occurred under the past administration at ADCRR.

I am currently reviewing the letter and the results of the investigation, and have communicated to the U.S.D.O.J. our agency's commitment to ensure all current ADCRR policies and practices are in full compliance with the Act. I take these findings and conclusions seriously and will take any and all actions necessary to ensure compliance with the Act moving forward.

Since I assumed my role as Director in January 2023, I have implemented a bold, new vision to rebuild the Department that places heavy emphasis on the health and well-being of each individual in our custody or on community supervision. In addition, I have been reviewing and updating our policies, many of which stem from the last ADCRR administration, to improve the overall care and services available to our population.”

Arizona Prisons Disability