Eight years ago, Donald Terrill, who is imprisoned at the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon, was fitted with a prosthesis after a lower leg amputation.
Since 2013, the Oregon Department of Corrections has garnished Terrill’s trust account. He’s paid more than $10,000 toward his own prosthetic leg and still owes another $14,000. He makes $45 per month working in prison.
“Because I am being charged for my prosthesis, I cannot buy much beyond toothpaste and deodorant, or save up for shoes,” Terrill said in a release announcing the lawsuit. “I must choose between calling my family and buying essentials.”
Terrill is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed this week in federal court that claims the Oregon Department of Corrections is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because it charges prisoners with disabilities for prosthetics and other medical devices they need. At the same time, the Oregon Department of Corrections doesn’t charge people in custody for temporary medical devices.
The litigation aims to prevent the practice of charging people with disabilities in prison for health care appliances and durable medical equipment. It also applies to people with disabilities who have served a sentence and been released. In addition to preventing the practice in the future, the plaintiffs want the state to reimburse people.
The lawsuit was filed by Portland attorney Lynn Walsh and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization.
“Oregon’s Department of Corrections cannot ignore the civil rights of people with disabilities,” attorney Torie Atkinson said in a statement. “Charging people with disabilities for their prostheses and other medical devices is unlawful and we hope the Court will respond swiftly to refund our client and all those who have been paying these fees.”
The Oregon Department of Corrections acknowledged adults in custody (AICs) are “generally required” to purchase their own medical equipment “like hearing aids and prosthetics.”
“Typically, AICs are not required to have all of the funds at the time of purchase, they are allowed to buy and pay back the DOC over time,” DOC spokeswoman Jennifer Black wrote in a statement. “When AICs are released from custody, these items leave with the AIC because the equipment is not Department of Corrections property, but personal property. Other medical items, like canes, are supplied by DOC and can be returned and used by another AIC.”
According to his lawsuit, Terrill requires the prosthetic limb to get around the Snake River prison. Without it, he said, he wouldn’t have access to the same programs and services in prison as inmates who are not disabled.
“ODOC Health Services considers orthoses, protheses, and other mechanical aids to be ‘elective’ devices when they are ‘not essential to prevent significant deterioration in the health of the (person in custody) but are nevertheless reasonably expected to significantly improve the quality of life,’” the lawsuit states. “[In] other words, when they are accommodations that people with disabilities require in order to have equal access to the prison’s programs, activities, and services.”
Two previous lawsuits filed in 2019 and 2020 also accused the prison system of being out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In one case, David Brown, a then-prisoner at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras, had a prosthetic that wouldn’t lock. It broke at the Multnomah County Jail before he entered the prison system, and for months he asked for a repair, which DOC denied, according to the lawsuit. In 2017, while working in the Deer Ridge kitchen, Brown slipped and injured his knee on his non-amputated leg. He needed surgery and a new prosthetic, which happened six months after his accident.
“Mr. Brown required a total knee replacement of his right knee,” his lawsuit stated. “He spent about eight days in the hospital and incurred $49,525 in medical bills. Mr. Brown’s trust account was docked the surcharge for the prosthetic device.”
In 2018, Gerald Wiese, who was then-imprisoned at the Santiam Correctional Institution, was denied wider shoes to accommodate his diabetes. Wiese developed a foot ulcer, common for some diabetics. He later had a toe amputated, according to the lawsuit.
“The Oregon Department of Corrections’ policies, procedures and rules discriminate against people with physical disabilities,” his lawsuit stated. “In particular, the policies, procedures and rules require physically disabled prisoners to pay out of pocket for special shoes without consideration as to whether the shoes are necessary in order to access the programs, services and activities of the prison.”
The state settled Brown’s case for $145,000 and Wiese’s case for $67,500 after the men were released from prison.
“Even though both the Brown and Wiese cases settled in 2020, (Oregon Department of Corrections) continued to dock trust accounts of people with disabilities for their accommodations in the form of mechanical aids,” Terrill’s lawsuit states.
Terrill’s case is different because it involves people who are currently in custody.