Minnesota Agrees to End Discrimination Against Incarcerated People with Disabilities


The Minnesota Department of Corrections has agreed to make changes in its GED program after the Justice Department found it discriminated against incarcerated people with disabilities by denying them accommodations on standardized exams and preparation courses.

Federal prosecutors investigated complaints that Minnesota prison officials were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide GED exam, course, practice test, and other program modifications to incarcerated people with disabilities.

The investigation revealed that, even though prison staff knew their students have disabilities and need accommodations, they failed to provide reasonable modifications and did not tell students they have a right to request modifications, such as extended time, frequent breaks, modified assignments, and one-on-one assistance.

The Justice Department notified Minnesota officials last fall that the state was violating the ADA by denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from its GED program.

Specifically, as spelled out in a complaint filed in federal court, federal prosecutors alleged that MNDOC discriminates against individuals with disabilities by

  1. failing to notify them about reasonable modifications for GED courses, practice tests and exams
  2. preventing them from applying for GED exam accommodations and
  3. failing to give them reasonable modifications, such as extended time and breaks, in GED courses and on practice tests.

As a result, the complaint said, many incarcerated people with disabilities repeatedly failed their practice tests or official exams, were denied access to other prison programs, and were released from prison without a GED.

Last month, the Justice Department announced it had reached an agreement with MNDOC  to provide damages to harmed individuals and require the state to make changes to end this discrimination.

“Prisons and jails have an obligation to meet the needs of people with disabilities,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “This settlement agreement stands to impact hundreds of incarcerated people with disabilities, opening doors to higher education and other opportunities that have been unjustly closed to them for far too long.”

Making accommodations for students with disabilities, she added, “will help promote rehabilitation and increase prospects for reentry.”

If it is approved by the federal court, the proposed consent decree requires MNDOC to

  • revise its policies and procedures
  • train relevant personnel and educate incarcerated people about the revised policies and the ADA
  • hire an agency-wide ADA Compliance Officer and designate facility-level ADA and education coordinators
  • conduct a corrective action review to determine appropriate relief for currently-incarcerated individuals with disabilities and
  • provide regular reports to the Justice Department.

The MNDOC will also pay over $70,000 in compensatory damages to aggrieved individuals with disabilities, the Justice Department said.

“We believe that our voluntary agreement to take corrective measures, including process and training efforts and the hiring of a dedicated ADA compliance officer for education, will result in improved identification, assessment and program accommodations for incarcerated individuals with disabilities,” DOC spokesman Aaron Swanum said in a statement. “Such measures are designed to address needed improvements in the program and will undoubtedly benefit the individuals with disabilities who are entitled to equal access to the program.”