Correctional Settings

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In the Court System

Individuals with disabilities may need help to navigate the court system and work effectively with their attorneys.

In Correctional Settings

For the most part, the same Federal protections exist for individuals in all state and locally operated correctional facilities.  In Virginia, state correctional centers and prisons are operated by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC).  Regional jails are operated by individual regional jail authorities.

Local and Regional Jails

The Virginia Board of Corrections (BOC) sets minimum standards for local, regional and VADOC community correctional facilities.  While they must meet the standards set by the BOC, local and regional jails are independent.  Superintendents and Regional Jail Authorities control inmate living conditions with their own policies and practices, including policies on health care and inmates with disabilities.

Virginia Department of Corrections

VADOC state correctional facilities and prisons have a common authority and set of operating procedures, but practices are often different across regions and facilities.  Security level, medical classification, and other factors can impact how a facility manages offenders with disabilities.

Getting Legal Help

dLCV cannot provide legal services to every individual who calls or writes asking for help.  dLCV tries to meet these needs by making referrals to other non-profit legal agencies and the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service.  In fact, any person with a disability in Virginia can contact the disAbility Law Center of Virginia for free information and referral services.

Self Help for Inmates

Inmates with Disabilities can be effective self-advocates if they know their rights and what remedies are available to them.  Below are links to self-help information and agencies that receive complaints on behalf of offenders with disabilities.

Requesting Accommodations in the Courtroom

The Supreme Court of Virginia provides information on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as applied to Virginia’s court system.  This includes the procedure for requesting accommodations and a request form for accommodations.  Requests must be sent in writing no later than 5 days before the scheduled court date. The judge’s City and County governments are required to house courts and clerks’ offices in appropriate spaces and buildings.  If you cannot physically access a courthouse building, you should contact the applicable city or county government.

As a state agency, the Virginia court system is required to have an ADA coordinator. The ADA coordinator facilitates compliance with the ADA and accepts complaints from people with disabilities. You may file a grievance with the ADA coordinator if you have been denied accommodations.

Requesting Interpreter Services in the Courtroom

Interpreters and Computer Assisted Real-time Transcription (CART) are provided by the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (VDDHH) and coordinated by the Clerk of Court upon request.  If you will need an interpreter or CART services for an appointment or court date, contact the local clerk’s office.  Do not contact VDDHH directly.

Helping Your Attorney Understand Your Disability Needs

Businesses and non-profit organizations, including law firms, are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act and must make their services available to people with disabilities.  Likewise, public defenders’ offices are considered state and local government agencies and are covered by Title II of the ADA. Attorneys and law firms may not discriminate against people with disabilities, but an attorney or law firm may have a legitimate reason for choosing not to accept a person with a disability as a client.  By understanding your rights, you can educate your attorney and help them help you.

  • Helping Your Attorney Factsheet
  • Lg. Print Factsheet

Representing Clients with Disabilities

If you are an attorney with questions on how to accommodate clients with disabilities, the American Bar Association provides an Accessibility Guide for Law Firms.

Laws that Protect Inmates with Disabilities

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act is a Federal law that provides legal protections for people with disabilities. In the 1997 case Pennsylvania Dep’t of Corrections v. Yeskey, the Supreme Court found that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections violated an inmate’s rights when it denied him entry to a would have allowed him to apply for early parole.  Even though he qualified for the program, they excluded him on the basis of his disability. The court found that correctional institutions were covered as “public entities” under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and therefore could not discriminate against qualified individuals due to their disability. The ADA supports individuals with disabilities and their participation in correctional programs.

You can learn more by visiting the following links:

The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 applies to individuals in correctional settings.  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits programs that receive Federal funding, including correctional programs, from discrimination on the basis of disability.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires states to provide educational services to eligible students with disabilities until they are 22 years old or complete their educational program.  This requirement includes eligible students residing in juvenile and adult correctional facilities.

You can learn more by visiting the following links:

The Virginians with Disabilities Act

Like the Federal government, states have also enacted laws to protect people with disabilities from discrimination.  Virginia Code Tile 51.5, or the Virginians with Disabilities Act, became law in 1985.  Like the Rehabilitation Act, the Virginians with Disabilities Act prohibits programs that receive state funding from discriminating on the basis of disability.

The 8th Amendment and Healthcare

People with disabilities often have disability related healthcare needs.  The law regarding healthcare in correctional settings is derived directly from the United States’ Constitution, specifically the 8th and 14th Amendments.  It is governed primarily by case law, beginning with the 1976 case Estelle v. Gamble.  This case is important because the U.S. Supreme Court established the minimum constitutional standard for healthcare in correctional settings.  The court found that “deliberate indifference by prison personnel to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”  Cruel and unusual punishment violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Later case law applied the “deliberate indifference” standard to other kinds of healthcare, including mental health care.

You can learn more by visiting the following links:

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) Policies and Procedures

The VADOC lacks a separate, formalized process for handling requests and grievances connected to a disability.  An offender can employ the existing Offender Request and Offender Grievance to make requests and complaints relating to his or her disability needs.  Individuals can also request Special Orders through the commissary when needed for medical accommodation, with a medical consultation and approval by the facility.

The VADOC’s Operating Procedures cover many topics, including conditions of confinement for offenders with disabilities.

The Role of the ADA Coordinator

Title II of the ADA requires any public entity with 50 or more employees to designate an ADA coordinator to accept requests and coordinate grievances.  The ADA coordinator must have sufficient training and knowledge of disability and applicable law and policy.

Every VADOC facility should have a designated staff person to assist with requests and grievances connected to a disability. The VADOC ADA Coordinator manages those requests and grievances throughout the system.

Virginia Department of Corrections
P.O. Box 26963
Richmond, VA 23261-6963

State Services for People with Disabilities

Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired

Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

The Virginia Department of Education

The Virginia Lawyer Referral Service

While dLCV cannot provide direct attorney referrals, it may be helpful to contact the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service (VLRS).  Operated by the Virginia State Bar, the VLRS can connect you with a licensed attorney in a specific practice area.  You can contact them by telephone at (804) 775-0808 or at (800) 552-7977. You can review the VLRS Frequently Asked Questions before calling.

The cost of the referral is $35.00, which must be prepaid. The $35.00 pre-paid fee entitles the referred caller to an up to one half-hour (30 minute) consultation with the VLRS attorney.

The VLRS also accept requests for consultation by mail, which may be more helpful for incarcerated individuals. You may experience some delays because it takes longer to arrange phone calls with people in correctional settings.  You can write them at

ATTN: The Virginia Lawyer Referral Service
1111 East Main Street
Suite 700
Richmond, Virginia 23219-0026

Other Non-Profit Legal Agencies

A number of non-profit legal organizations represent individuals in civil rights litigation connected to incarceration and conditions of confinement. These organizations each have their own case selection criteria and application processes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia

The ACLU of Virginia “protects the minimal rights constitutionally guaranteed to incarcerated persons.”  The ACLU provides information on a variety of civil rights issues and accepts requests for legal services.

You can request legal services online or by mailing a paper intake form to:

ACLU of Virginia
701 E. Franklin St.
Ste. 1412
Richmond, VA 23219

The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights

The Washington Lawyers Committee supports a number of civil and human rights projects, including its DC Prisoners’ Project and its Disability Rights Project. The Committee “advocates for the humane treatment and dignity of all persons convicted or charged with a criminal offense under DC law housed in prisons, jails, or community corrections programs, or living in the community on parole. The Project also works to assist formerly incarcerated people with issues related to their incarceration and strives to promote progressive criminal justice reform.”

You can request legal services online or by mailing, emailing or faxing the Intake Questionnaire to:

Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs
11 Dupont Circle, NW
Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Fax:      (202) 319-1010

Legal Aid Justice Center

The Legal Aid Justice Center provides legal services for low-income and incarcerated individuals through a number of programs, including its Institutionalized Persons Program, JustChildren Program, and the University of Virginia Health Law Program, which accepts cases involving mental health care in jails and prisons.  Individuals can request services by contacting one of LAJC’s four Virginia offices.

The VADOC Grievance Procedure

Offenders with Disabilities are encouraged to resolve disagreements and rights violations through the grievance procedure.  The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires offenders to “exhaust administrative remedies” before seeking relief from the court system.  The grievance procedure also provides a written record of the request and why staff rejected or granted your request.

Operating Procedure 866.1 Offender Grievance Procedure

The VADOC also has policies on access to legal services and reporting harmful conduct toward aged or incapacitated offenders.

Operating Procedure 038.2    Reporting & Investigation of Alleged Abuse or Assault Against Aged or Incapacitated Offenders

Operating Procedure 866.3  Offender Access to Legal Services

Local and Regional Jail Grievances

Typically, the jail grievance procedure is provided at inmate orientation.  Copies of the procedure should be made available to offenders. The highest level to which a jail grievance can be advanced is to the Sheriff or Superintendent of the jail. The Department of Corrections has no authority to intervene in this process.

Filing Complaints with the State Division of Human Rights

The Division of Human Rights is part of the Virginia Office of the Attorney General and “receives and investigates complaints alleging unlawful discrimination that violates state and federal civil rights laws.”  They provide a description of the complaint process and a complaint form.  You can contact them at:

Division of Human Rights
Office of the Attorney General of Virginia                                        
202 North Ninth Street                                                 
Richmond, VA 23219

You can also contact them by telephone, fax, or email.
T: (804) 225-2292
F: (804) 225-3294

Filing Complaints with the Department of Justice Special Litigation Section

The Department of Justice Special Litigation Section protects the rights of people in institutions run by state or local governments, and in private facilities receiving public money.

To file a complaint, write the Special Litigation Section (SPL) explaining your situation with as much detail as possible. If you are aware of similar incidents involving others, please include that information as well. SPL does not have legal authority to represent individuals, and in most of SPL’s work, a single incident of mistreatment will not be sufficient to start an investigation.   However, it is still helpful to file a complaint, especially if you know other inmates are experiencing similar issues. It is helpful to include contact information so the SPL can follow up and get more information. (such as an address, telephone number and e-mail address). Also, do not include original documents as the SPL cannot guarantee their safe return. You can send information to:

Special Litigation Section
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Special Litigation Section
Washington, D.C. 20530

The Section can be reached by telephone: (202) 514-6255 or toll-free at (877) 218-5228.

Information for Pro Se Litigants

Acknowledging the lack of available, affordable legal services, inmates may find themselves considering litigation pro se, without an attorney. Inmates’ Rights Groups and other organizations provide information for those considering filing on their own behalf.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act

The Prison Litigation Reform Act is a Federal law that places additional burdens on inmates’ access to the Federal court system.  Understanding the requirements and limitations of the Prison Litigation Reform Act is critical for pro se litigants.

In addition to the standard requirements for filing a lawsuit in Federal court, the PLRA requires that inmates first try to resolve most potential legal claims through the grievance procedure, following it to the highest level of appeal.

The PLRA also places limits on inmates’ ability to file in forma pauperis, i.e. waiving upfront payment of the filing fee for indigent plaintiffs.  This can make the process more costly and discourage inmates from filing lawsuits.