December 2, 2020 – DOCCS Hit with Another Lawsuit Alleging Discrimination
Another proposed class action claims the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision discriminated against incarcerated individuals with mental or physical disabilities by denying their enrollment into an early release program.
According to the 22-page lawsuit, the Shock Incarceration Program, a six-month boot camp-style program that grants successful participants early release, is inaccessible to otherwise eligible individuals solely because of their mental health or physical disability. Per the complaint, non-disabled individuals can enroll in the program through a court order or directly through the DOCCS system while disabled individuals can only be placed in an alternative program if they were sentenced to Shock by a court.
“People with mental health disabilities and physical disabilities are excluded outright from these programs and/or face barriers to entry to these programs in a way that nondisabled persons do not,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit looks to cover the following proposed class:
“All persons who were (1) were [sic] incarcerated in a New York state prison; (2) not judicially ordered to be enrolled in the Shock Incarceration Program; (3) disqualified from the Shock Incarceration Program on the basis that they were classified as mental health Level 1, 2, or 3; (4) otherwise eligible to enroll in the Shock Incarceration Program; and (5) not given an alternative six-month pathway to early release from prison.”
A proposed class action claims New York’s prison system has unlawfully discriminated against inmates with medical or mental disabilities by excluding them from eligibility for a six-month early release program.
Known as the Shock Incarceration Program (SIP), the military-style boot camp allows participants who successfully complete the six-month program to become immediately eligible for release from prison, the case explains. Per the suit, New York provides no other programs that offer a similar opportunity for early release.
According to the suit, however, the defendants—the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), its acting commissioner, and the state of New York—have screened otherwise eligible individuals out of the program due to medical or mental health conditions and offered no alternative early release option.
As a result, thousands of inmates have been denied an opportunity for early release through the SIP and “kept in prison for additional months or years based solely on their disabilities,” the lawsuit alleges.
Per the complaint, the SIP was rolled out in 1987 as a six-month alternative to traditional incarceration for selected youthful individuals incarcerated for non-violent felonies. The SIP is currently administered at two minimum security prisons—Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Brocton and Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Mineville—and includes “rigorous physical activity and exercise, intensive regimentation and discipline, and rehabilitative and therapeutic programs,” all overseen by “drill instructors,” the suit says.
According to the case, the SIP is the only program in the New York State prison system that allows individuals sentenced for non-violent felonies to be released earlier than five-sixths of the minimum term of an indeterminate sentence or five-sevenths of a determinate sentence.
In 2009, the suit continues, the Drug Law Reform Act specifically required DOCCS to set up a special six-month alternative program for court-ordered Shock participants who were excluded from the program due to medical or mental health treatment. Despite the mandate, however, DOCCS instead utilized existing programs, such as the six-month Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment (ASAT) program or Phase I of the Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment (CASAT) program, to allow such individuals to become eligible for immediate release upon program completion in the same manner as if they had completed the SIP.
The problem, according to the case, is that DOCCS has adopted a policy of only providing an alternative to the SIP for medically disqualified individuals who were judicially sentenced to participate in the program. If an incarcerated individual was not court-ordered to be enrolled in the SIP but was medically disqualified, DOCCS offers no alternative program with a comparable path to early release, the suit alleges.
“Rather, DOCCS denies the individual all of the early release benefits that accompany the SIP, and the individual must serve the remainder of their prison sentence due to the disability-based disqualification,” the complaint argues.
Per the lawsuit, those who are initially deemed eligible for the SIP are transferred to Lakeview or Moriah to await medical screening, which can take weeks or months. Individuals who are then medically disqualified must wait additional weeks or months before being transferred to another prison, the suit says.
During these waiting periods, individuals are not able to participate in the educational, vocational and rehabilitative programs offered at the state’s other prisons, the case explains, noting that those who are medically disqualified are often left worse off than if they had never been screened for the SIP given other forms of release and parole eligibility depend on the timely completion of such programs. Moreover, even though medically disqualified individuals never receive the benefits of the SIP, they are nevertheless subjected to the program’s strict rules and restrictions while awaiting screening or transfer.
“These rules and restrictions include special grooming rules requiring both men and women to shave their heads, restricted access to bathing that includes a three-minute time limit on showering, and limited permission to communicate with the outside world,” the complaint relays.
The case adds that DOCCS also excludes from participation in the SIP individuals who have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and anyone who has been prescribed medication for a mental illness, regardless of whether it is considered serious.
According to the suit, DOCCS’s own records show that thousands of individuals with medical or mental conditions that qualify as disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been screened out or removed from the SIP on the basis of their disability and therefore remain incarcerated longer than similarly situated non-disabled individuals.
The plaintiff, who is currently serving a six-year sentence for a non-violent offense, says she was initially deemed eligible for the SIP but was denied participation in the program because of her Type I diabetes diagnosis. According to the case, the plaintiff will remain incarcerated for 19 months longer than if she were to be granted early release through the SIP.
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