The Disabilities Rights Center, Inc. recently reached a favorable settlement on behalf of a disabled inmate at the New Hampshire State Prison, Donald Riopel. The suit involved numerous violations of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the U.S. Constitution.
Prior to his incarceration at the N.H. State Prison in October of 2001, Mr. Riopel was in an automobile accident that resulted in severe burns over much of his body, the amputation of his right arm below the elbow, and the loss of complete mobility. Mr. Riopel requires the use of an arm prosthesis and a power wheelchair.
Mr. Riopel alleged in his suit that during his incarceration, his prosthetic arm was taken away from him and on several occasions, he was permitted only a manual wheelchair, which he cannot maneuver with only one arm. For periods of time, Mr. Riopel was housed in a maximum security cell with no accessible toilet or shower. Without the benefit of basic grab bars, with only one arm and without being able to rely on his legs, Mr. Riopel suffered several falls and injuries from attempting to transfer himself from his wheelchair to the toilet.
This was an important case for disabled inmates because it highlighted the fact that legitimate security concerns cannot disregard basic human dignities, but must be balanced to protect humanitarian principles. As a result of the suit, the State is now better able to accommodate its disabled population. For example, the prison now has a cell in the maximum security unit that is equipped with grab bars to assist inmates in wheelchairs with transferring from the chair to the toilet. Likewise, there is now a maximum security shower unit that is accessible to inmates in wheelchairs.
Since resolving this suit, Mr. Riopel completed his sentence and has moved out of state. His willingness to bring this action and these issues to the attention of the State enabled the Department of Corrections to improve the accessibility of the housing units, which will benefit many other persons with disabilities in the prison.