The Colorado Department of Corrections discriminated against prisoners who are blind by failing to provide equal access to key information, programs and jobs, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado alleged in a federal civil rights complaint filed last week.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday on behalf of prisoners Brian Mackes and Adrian Chavez, who are both blind, lays out myriad ways in which they say the Department of Corrections has failed to accommodate their disability, and asks a judge to force the prison system to reform.
Chavez and Mackes have been excluded from some prison jobs and educational opportunities solely because they are blind, according to the lawsuit. The prison system also provides key information, like prison regulations, grievance forms and handbooks, only in written form.
The Department of Corrections does assign “Offender Care Aides” to help prisoners who are blind with daily tasks like reading information to them, guiding them through the facility or filling out forms on their behalf — but the aides are unreliable, according to the lawsuit. They sometimes fail to show up, relay inaccurate information, or fill out forms incorrectly.
Mackes was in July 2020 housed with about 30 other prisoners who required help from such aides, and there were only one or two aides assigned to help the entire group, according to the lawsuit, which meant he faced long waits whenever he needed assistance.
“The commodes in the common restroom are often unsanitary, and, because Mr. Mackes cannot see this, he has often had the experience of sitting on others’ urine and feces,” the lawsuit reads. Prison officials assigned an aide to wipe the toilet seats before Mackes used them, according to the lawsuit, but when he asked for that several times, Mackes was accused of “abusing” the aide program, according to the lawsuit.
The Colorado Department of Corrections did not immediately return a request for comment.
“Blind prisoners don’t have access to a lot of the printed information that is available to other prisoners, so they lose out on opportunities,” said Scott LaBarre, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. “We want to advance the rights of all blind people, whether they are living in the mainstream of life or whether they are guests of the state.”
Chavez, 34, who is serving time at for sexual assault of a minor at Fremont Correctional Facility, and Mackes, 51, who is jailed on drug charges at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City, ask in the lawsuit that the Colorado Department of Corrections be be ordered to stop discriminating against blind prisoners.
The lawsuit also asks that the DOC adjust its policies, procedures and practices to better accommodate blind prisoners — like housing blind prisoners in cells with toilets — and asks that monetary damages be awarded to Mackes and Chavez.
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