Back to Blog

Protecting the Rights of Disabled Inmates Through Proactive Management

Ever wonder how inmates with disabilities survive in jail or prison? How are facilities ensuring all inmates receive equal opportunity? How can staff take proactive care of these inmates?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Daniel Quam | Director of Jail Operations
Jeff Kovar | Strategic Account Executive
Chris Riedmueller | Product Trainer

Jail and prison facilities are required to implement more impartial standards to help inmates with disabilities have equal opportunities. By taking a proactive approach, facilities can ensure inmates with disabilities have accommodations waiting for them before they are even booked into the facility. Does this approach help level the playing field?

Is “Survival of the Fittest” Still True? 

“Survival of the Fittest” is a phrase that came from Charles Darwin’s theory explaining the evolution of natural selection. In layman's terms, the most physically fit and strong individuals would survive any given situation. Does this phrase still apply in corrections nowadays? More than 750,000 people with disabilities are incarcerated across the United States. If their facilities don’t implement vital services for these specific inmates, they can end up “living in a prison within a prison” (Ballinger, 2020). But, if facilities start adhering to standards to promote equal opportunity for all inmates, “Survival of the Fittest” is technically an outdated term. Of course, that can only be true when all inmates are positioned at the same level of survival. Hence, the reason why facilities are required to promote equal opportunity for everyone incarcerated.

Ensuring Equal Opportunity Protection with ADA Guidelines

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) states that individuals with legitimate disabilities should have access to all mandatory or voluntary programs and services in which they would otherwise be able to participate in. Thus, correctional facilities must ensure that these individuals must not be excluded simply because they are inaccessible due to their disabilities. This includes allowing individuals to meet the essential eligibility requirements of the program, with, if needed, reasonable modifications to rules, policies, and practices, and/or with the removal of architecture, communication, or transportation barriers. For over 32 years, Julie Ballinger has provided leadership in the Disability Rights field and believes that in order to determine if an effective accommodation should be provided, the facility can review the inmate’s medical records. After confirming, the facility should then arrange to have the inmate diagnosed by appropriate professionals, interview staff, and take other actions reasonably necessary (Ballinger, 2020).

Prison officials have the duty to assess the potential accommodation needs of inmates with known disabilities. It is expected that there is some anticipation that not only will they need accommodations, but what accommodations they may need in relation to whatever program or service that they are involved in. It’s vital to establish facility correctional standards that include classification and placement procedures that generally place inmates with disabilities in facilities offering the same programs and opportunities as afforded to prisoners without disabilities. Therefore, the programs must be accessible to inmates with disabilities.

Julie Ballinger
Disability Rights & Issues Consultant and Organizational Facilitator

Wondering what could happen if a facility doesn’t take a proactive approach? An excellent example of this scenario is the Clemons vs. Dart case. Inmate Thomas Clemons (who used a wheelchair due to his amputated legs) sued the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Thomas Dart for a civil rights violation claiming the facility did not comply with the ADA’s Act. Prior to the conflict, Cook County Sheriff Dart assigned Clemons to an inaccessible cell but provided with him a wheelchair and promised him that he would be able to have access to whatever he wanted by just letting the staff know ahead of time. Did Sheriff Dart handle this situation correctly? No. This is not equivalent access because it’s accommodation upon request and not affirmative proactive accommodations necessary to ensure meaningful access to public services and programs (Morrissey, 2016).

Equal Opportunity Solutions

Programs and Services

Some jail and prison facilities allow inmates to earn sentence-reducing credits based on their non-violent behavior record. There are programs available to participate in to earn this credit, such as maintenance of public lands and manual tolling of farms, however, they require specific eligibility qualifications. Inmates can earn the right to participate in these programs by conforming to the facility rules, but they also must be physically fit, carefully screened, and medically cleared. It’s up to the facility to be creative and find work-around ways for inmates with disabilities that meet the behavioral criteria aside from the physical standards of their disability. Luckily, program accessibility may be achieved by several methods. The facility should explore possible program expansion to include a wider range of program opportunities to achieve its goal of having equal opportunity to earn release time (Ballinger, 2020).


Standard transport practices can be dangerous for inmates with mobility disabilities. When being transferred in a vehicle that is not accessible to them, the inmates are put at high risk of unintentional injury. Inmates should not be held back because there isn’t any accessible transportation; the facility needs the means to have accessible transportation for the inmates who need it (Ballinger, 2020).

Effective Communication

Aside from physical accommodations, correctional facilities must also provide inmates with effective communication accommodations. In other words, inmates with disabilities need access to services that allow them to receive and understand information and be able to communicate with others in any and all relevant aspects of facility living. Auxiliary aids and services can include qualified readers, taped texts, audio recordings, written materials, videophones, sign language interpreters, etc. (Ballinger, 2020).

Can an Inmate Serve Time with a Service Animal? 

Service animals provide incredible work, sometimes even life-saving services, for their owner(s). But it isn’t natural instinct that enables this work; these animals spend many long hours of individual training to perform specific tasks. Although it sounds nice to have your (non-service) animal attached to your hip all day, it diminishes the hard work that legitimate service animals are trained for to aid their disabled owner(s). There are unfortunately many cases where people without a disability falsely claim that their pets are service animals. Violators will even go as far as purchasing fake vests and harnesses for their pets to wear and fit the role. While some believe service animals are a scheme for people without true disabilities to bring along their teacup poodle everywhere they go, there are truly some animals out there that qualify as essential service animals. In fact, some states will criminalize people who falsely claim their pet as a service animal. For example, Florida recently made a law in 2019, proposed by state Rep. Jimmie Smith, to give a second-degree misdemeanor to anyone with an unqualified pet as a service animal as they are misrepresenting a service animal. The offense is punishable with up to 60 days in jail and 30 hours of community service for an organization that services people with disabilities (Associated Press (2015).

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. The ADA requires private businesses to allow service animals into areas where pets normally aren't admitted as an accommodation for persons with disabilities (U.S. Department of Justice (2015). Of course, a jail or prison environment is no place where animals normally reside. But what about disabled inmates with a service animal? Are they allowed to serve time with their service animal? Does it affect the communal environment? Would it cause allergy issues for other inmates? What about food sanitation or medical procedures? Who becomes responsible for the health and well-being of the animal? These are key questions that must be considered before accepting a service animal in any facility. 

Michael Boling served as the Custody Division ADA Coordinator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and had been the primary instructor for the physical disabilities portion of LD-37 (People with Disabilities) for the last 15 years. Never in his career has he seen a service animal inside of our custody facilities to accommodate an inmate. However, Michael believes that since the inmate allegedly requires the use of a service animal, it would be the facility’s responsibility to determine what task(s) the animal is trained to perform and try to find accommodation(s) for the inmates in replacement of the animal such as a guide, or extra time to perform daily activities, etc. 

While service animals are even permitted in non-surgical medical settings, caring for the animal might cause an undue burden that could potentially be remedied by simply educating your staff on the additional needs of the inmate that requires accommodation. If your agency decides to accept the service animal there are circumstances that would permit your agency to remove the animal from the inmate. If the animal barks, urinates, defecates, growls, or wanders, it has not been formally trained to serve as a service animal. Then, the animal may be removed and denied.

Michael Boling
Custody Division ADA Coordinator | Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Living in jail or prison is not easy or fun, so it’s important that facilities make it a little less dreadful for inmates with disabilities by positioning all inmates at the same level of survival. When jail and prison facilities implement accommodations and impartial standards to help inmates with disabilities experience equal opportunity, the term “Survival of the Fittest” is truly outdated. 


Associated Press (2015). Owner of fake service animal may get jail time with the new law

Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Justice (2015). Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA

Retrieved from


Retrieved from

Morrissey, Thomas (2016). Thomas Clemons v. Cook County Sheriff's Office and Thomas Dart

Retrieved from: