Oregon Supreme Court orders private companies operating in prisons to follow anti-discrimination laws

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Private companies providing inmate services in Oregon prisons must abide by federal laws prohibiting discrimination in public places, the state Supreme Court has ruled in a case involving a deaf man who filed a federal lawsuit for discrimination.

The ruling released last week by Oregon’s highest court marks a victory for civil rights advocates, who have argued that people with disabilities have borne an inordinate burden when seeking medical care while incarcerated.

“This decision will save lives,” said Emily Cooper, legal director of Disability Rights Oregon. “While incarcerated people cannot choose who their health care provider is, this does not absolve them of their duty to provide people with disabilities with accommodations that meet their health care needs. »

In 2013, state lawmakers exempted correctional facilities from laws requiring equal treatment in housing, citing as an example that jailers might need to isolate inmates for security reasons, such as an inmate’s perceived sexual orientation.

The new ruling, which applies to private entities operating in prisons, stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed by Andrew J. Abraham. He alleged Corizon Health Inc. violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to treat him while he was being held in Clackamas County Jail.

Born deaf and later diagnosed with diabetes, Abraham never received an American Sign Language interpreter after he was arrested and taken to jail in October 2015, according to court documents.

Corizon workers wrote messages to Abraham on slips of paper, but were unable to communicate and mistakenly assumed the inmate was refusing meals and insulin, court records show.

Abraham was strip searched and placed in solitary confinement under suicide watch until he was released from prison a few days later. He was eventually sentenced to time served for second-degree burglary. The Molalla resident died aged 55 last year.

Corizon itself ceased operations in Oregon in 2018, according to spokesperson Morgan Hook, the same year a federal judge approved a $10 million settlement to the family of a deceased woman after the company employees failed to keep her hydrated during her detox at Washington County. Jail.

Washington and Clackamas counties now contract with NaphCare for prison medical services.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office says its prison policies follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act and are accredited by the nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

“This accreditation requires both our facility and our medical provider to ensure equal access to all services and programs for adults in custody,” a spokesperson said.

Writing for the majority, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters noted that while prisons themselves are exempt from some public housing laws, for-profit companies operating behind the bars should serve everyone equally.

“(Despite) the security issues a prison or prison must manage,” Walters wrote, “this does not indicate an interest in excluding private service providers from anti-discrimination laws.”

Judges Thomas Balmer and Christopher Garrett disagree with 5-2 ruling

“The drafters of Oregon’s Public Accommodations Act,” Balmer wrote, “probably had no intention of regulating activities in a prison.”

—Zane Sparling; [email protected]; 503-319-7083; @pdxzane

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