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Oregon Supreme Court orders private companies operating in jails to follow anti-discrimination laws

Private companies providing services to inmates in Oregon’s jails must abide by federal laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, the state Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a deaf man who filed a federal discrimination lawsuit.

The ruling last week by Oregon’s highest court notches a victory for civil rights advocates, who argued that people with disabilities have borne an outsized burden when seeking medical care while incarcerated.

“This decision will save lives,” said Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon. “While people in jails don’t get to choose who their health care provider is, this does not exempt those providers from their duty to provide people with disabilities with the accommodations that meet their health care needs.”

State lawmakers in 2013 made correctional facilities exempt from laws requiring equal treatment in accommodation, citing as an example that jailers might need to segregate inmates for safety reasons, such as an inmate’s perceived sexual orientation.

The new ruling, which applies to private entities operating in jails, stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed by Andrew J. Abraham. He alleged Corizon Health Inc. had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to treat him while he was held at the Clackamas County Jail.

Born deaf and later diagnosed with diabetes, Abraham was never provided an American Sign Language interpreter after he was arrested and taken to the jail in October 2015, according to legal filings.

Corizon workers wrote messages to Abraham on sheets of paper, but were unable to communicate and incorrectly assumed the inmate was refusing meals and insulin, court records say.

Abraham was strip-searched and placed in isolation on suicide watch until he was released from jail several days later. He was eventually sentenced to time served for second-degree burglary. The Molalla resident died at age 55 last year.

Corizon itself stopped operating in Oregon in 2018, according to spokesperson Morgan Hook, the same year a federal judge approved a $10 million settlement to the family of a woman who died after the company’s employees failed to keep her hydrated while she detoxed at the Washington County Jail.

Washington and Clackamas counties now contract with NaphCare for jail medical services.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office says its jail policies abide by federal disability law and are accredited by the nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

“This accreditation requires both our facility and medical provider to ensure equal access to all services and programs for adults in custody,” a spokesperson said.

Writing for the majority, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters noted that while jails themselves are exempt from certain public accommodation laws, the for-profit companies operating behind bars must serve everyone equally.

“(Despite) security concerns that a prison or jail must manage,” Walters wrote, “it does not indicate an interest in excepting private service providers from antidiscrimination laws.”

Justices Thomas Balmer and Christopher Garrett dissented from the 5-2 ruling

“The drafters of Oregon’s public accommodations law,” wrote Balmer,” likely had no intention to regulate activities within a jail.”

— Zane Sparling;; 503-319-7083; @pdxzane

Original Article: Source