Legal Memorandum LG05: The Americans with Disabilities Act Applies to Local Jails and Prisoners


The Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., embodies a national policy of nondiscrimination against and reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities.1 It covers discrimination in employment (Title I), public services and transportation (Title II), public accommodations (Title III), and telecommunications (Title IV).2

On June 15, 1998, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) covers inmates in state prisons and local jails. The case was Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 118 S. Ct. 1952, 141 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1998).

Ronald Yeskey was a prison inmate sentenced to 18 to 36 months in a Pennsylvania correctional facility. The sentencing court recommended his placement in Pennsylvania’s Motivational Boot Camp for first-time offenders. Successful completion would have led to release on parole in just six months. Because he had a medical history of hypertension, admission to the program was denied. He sued, alleging that his exclusion violated the ADA.

The command of title II of the ADA is succinct: “[N]o qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12132. In Yeskey the Supreme Court held that this unambiguously includes State prisons and prisoners. Without deciding that it applied, the court found that this provision satisfied the Gregory rule. The ADA defines “public entity” to include “any department, agency, special purpose district, or other instrumentality of a State or States or local government.” 42 U.S.C. § 12131 (1)(B). State prisons and local jails fall squarely within that definition.

The Supreme Court rejected the contention that prisons do not provide prisoners with “benefits” or “services, programs, or activities.” Modern prisons, said the court, provide inmates with many recreational activities, medical services, and educational and vocational programs that theoretically benefit prisoners and from which disabled prisoners could be excluded. In the court’s view, the ADA provides no basis for distinguishing programs, services, and activities provided by prisons from those provided by other public entities.

The Supreme Court also rejected the contention that the term “qualified individual with a disability” is ambiguous with respect to prisoners. The statute defines the term to include anyone with a disability “who, with or without reasonable modifications to rules, policies, and practices, the removal of architectural, communication, or transportation barriers, or the provision of auxiliary aids and services, meets the essential eligibility requirements for the receipt of services or the participation in programs or activities provided by a public entity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12131(2). Petitioners argued this implied voluntariness on the part of the qualified individual. The court noted that prisoners are eligible to participate in a variety of programs and activities provided by prisons - - some voluntary, some not. The court said that the involuntary nature of a prisoner’s confinement does not lead to the conclusion that a prisoner cannot be a “qualified individual with a disability.”

In New York two pre-Yeskey cases recognized the applicability of the ADA to prisons. Rivera v. Dyett, 1 Am. Disabilities Dec. 41 (S.D.N.Y. 1992), considered an inmate’s claims under the ADA, but decided the case on other grounds. Clarkson v. Coughlin, 898 F.Supp 1019 (S.D.N.Y. 1995), granted summary judgment and declaratory and injunctive relief to hearing impaired inmates’ claims under the ADA3. In addition, Department of Justice regulations explicitly identified prisons as among the programs covered under the ADA. Yeskey thus confirms what was already thought, if not widely acknowledged, to be the law in New York.

In United States v. Georgia et al., 546 U.S. 151, 163 L. Ed.2d 650 (2006), Tony Goodman, a paraplegic inmate in the Georgia State Prison, sued the State of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Corrections, complaining that he was not able to move his wheelchair in his cell, he was forced to sit in his own bodily waste because prison officials refused to provide assistance, he was denied physical therapy and medical treatment and he was being denied access to virtually all prison programs and services on account of his disability. The United States intervened to defend the constitutionality of Title II's abrogation of state sovereign immunity.

On January 10, 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Title II of the ADA validly abrogates state sovereign immunity insofar as it creates a private cause of action for damages against the States for conduct that actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the District Court holding that, once Goodman amended his complaint, the lower courts will be best situated to determine in the first instance, on a claim-by-claim basis, “(1) which aspects of the State’s alleged conduct violated Title II; (2) to what extent such misconduct also violated the Fourteenth Amendment; and (3) insofar as such misconduct violated Title II but did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, whether Congress’s purported abrogation of sovereign immunity as to that class of conduct is nevertheless valid.” The Supreme Court opined that, if Goodman were able to establish a claim a violation of his Due Process rights, he should be afforded the opportunity to bring a private cause of action for damages against the State of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Disabled prisoners pose special problems compared with the general prison population and prison administrators must confront a broad range of disabilities. The disabled may include the wheelchair bound, the blind, the hearing impaired, the mentally retarded and mentally ill, and persons with an array of medical conditions including HIV infection4. Moreover, administrators must deal with the tension between the ADA’s individualized approach to accommodating disabilities and the needs of prison security and administration.

An important consideration for local governments is that the ADA’s provisions also affect pretrial detainees. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S. Ct. 1861, 60 L. Ed.2d 447 (1979), the leading case on the rights of pretrial detainees, suggests little practical difference between pretrial detention and post-conviction incarceration. This suggests that ADA claims of pretrial detainees are likely to result no differently than those of prison inmates.

Municipal attorneys face two immediate challenges. One is to acquaint elected officials with the need to bring their corrections facilities into compliance with Title II. The second is to acquaint corrections managers and staff with the needs and rights of the disabled inmate population. Full implementation of the ADA in state prisons and local jails is a complex but important task. 


1 “The term disability means, with respect to an individual, (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual, (B) a record of such an impairment, or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12202(2). For purposes of Title II, see also the definition found at 28 C.F.R. 35.104.

2 A fifth title contains catchall and miscellaneous provisions such as provisions for attorneys fees. Much useful information about the ADA is available from the Americans with Disabilities Act Document Center,

3 28 C.F.R. 42.540(h); 28 C.F.R. 35.19096); Department of Justice Title II Technical Assistance Manual: Covering State and Local Government Programs and Services II-6.3300(6), at 35 (outlining the Americans with Disabilities Act Guidelines (ADAAG) and Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS) requirements for jails and prisons). The Department of Justice and the Architectural and Transportation compliance Board have created guidelines specifically for prisons that address architectural barriers. Id.; 36 C.F.R. 1191.2. The Supreme Court did not address these regulations in Yeskey.

Asymptomatic HIV infection is a disability under the ADA. Bragdon v. Abbott, 524 U.S. 624, 118 S. Ct. 2196, 141 L. Ed. 2d 540 (1998).


The Secretary of State is authorized to provide assistance to local governments and general information to the public pursuant to New York State Executive Law, Article 6-B.  The information in this Memorandum is provided pursuant to that authorization, but is informal only and should not be construed as providing legal advice. Local governments and other persons or entities should consult with their own legal counsel for legal advice.