Fighting for disability rights behind bars

By Billy Rinick and Joe Piette

Screenshot taken during a zoom visit with William “Billy” Rinick, Dec. 11, 2023.

“The disproportionate incarceration of people with disabilities in the United States is a serious and growing problem. As the prison population ages, more inmates are reporting physical disabilities. The U.S. has also seen a rise in the number of people with mental illness and developmental and cognitive disabilities in prison. National surveys now indicate that as many as 31% of inmates in state prisons report having at least one disability.” (Disabilityrightsca.org) 

Accessing adequate health care and other needs for people with disabilities in prison is a significant challenge. William “Billy” Rinick (FN9690), disabled and incarcerated at SCI Coal Township in Pennsylvania, refuses to accept discrimination based on his disabilities, believing that if you don’t fight, you can’t win your rights. He wrote this letter to WW which has been lightly edited.

I’d like to start off by taking the opportunity to thank Workers World and Bryant Arroyo for providing me with this platform to highlight and expose the Medical Health Care Bureau and Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ Wellpath contractor. They put the almighty dollar over humane care of prisoners, in violation of the Hippocratic Oath and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On May 17, 2022, I filed grievance #982323 due to my arbitrarily and capriciously being transferred from SCI Mahanoy out of the Eastern Region to SCI Fayette. Fortunately, the PADOC smelled a lawsuit coming down the pike and granted my grievance, transferring me back to the eastern region to SCI Coal Township. Since then, I’ve continuously been blackballed and discriminated against with impunity, against ADA regulations.

I had to file grievance #983964 against SCI Fayette just to get my personal property shipped to SCI Coal Township.

On May 12, 2023, I filed grievance #103310 against the Administration and the Activities Department for being discriminated against in violation of the American with Disabilities Act for their failure to provide disability gym sessions for disabled incarcerees.

Lack of accessible fire exits

On July 12, I filed grievance #1041548 against SCI Coal Township Administration for violating the American with Disabilities Act. This facility was built between 1990-93 and failed to include disability ramps in fire exits throughout the entire facility. It’s gross negligence for the entire DOC to not include disability ramps in all their fire exits in each facility, in violation of ADA regulations.

On July 12, there was a fire drill, and I was ordered by Fire/Safety [official] Mr. Ferrair to go out the fire exit. I had to hop out on one leg, placing a severe strain on my atrophied foot and toes, which have been diagnosed with arthritis. Another prisoner had to carry my wheelchair down the steps, because there isn’t a wheelchair ramp or rails. SCI Coal Township has failed to update fire exits with wheelchair ramps, in violation of fire/safety codes and ADA rules — clearly ableism.

On July 12, I filed grievance #1042632 for violating the ADA when Activities Manager Mr. Randell and Activity Specialist Kolovich unequivocally stated that they don’t hire disabled people to work in the gym, even though I specifically informed them I worked in a gym prior to being transferred here. I included affidavits from other prisoners who witnessed the conversation.

I’ve been excluded by both librarians, Ms. Bahner and Ms. Rosini, denying me employment at the Law Library as a disabled person. They told me I was on the list to be hired, then did an about face and hired another inmate who just came into the prison. Being placed at the back of the line for employment is discrimination. I’ve exhausted all roads, but they deny employment for those of us covered by ADA. On Aug. 3, I filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

ADA grievance for prosthetic foot

On Sept. 11, I filed grievance #1041632 and an Inmate Disability Accommodation Request Form (Form 006 ) for violating the ADA in denying me a fiberglass foot with shock [absorption].  Previously, on May 8, at a sick call to get a consult written to replace my broken prosthetic foot, Specialist Mr. Dom recommended that particular device.

But for four months, the Correctional Health Care Administration at SCI Coal Township, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Health Care, and Wellpath went on an internal campaign to deny the specialist’s official recommendation.

On Oct. 19, I filed a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Justice Department (see Rinnick v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 23-OCR-1833) in support of health care treatment, for a new fiberglass foot with shock [absorption] and a transfer to SCI Chester.

This is all I want — to have my foot — in order to be able to walk around again, and a transfer to SCI Chester, which is a wheelchair accessible prison.

On Oct. 30, I filed Grievance #1058926 and an 006 complaint against Unit Manager Mr. Dunn, who was making a round on my block with former Unit Manager Mr. Gatewood. Dunn told me, “Get away from me, you one-legged mother f****r.” When I asked him for his name, Dunn stated, “Make sure you spell it right. I’m retiring. Your one-legged ass can’t do nothing to me.”

On Dec. 7, I filed a grievance due to my right foot and toes becoming infected, atrophied, coupled with hammertoe. I now need surgery to have my toes realigned and have a bunion removed. This is the result of deliberate delays in providing me with a fiberglass foot on my left leg, causing unnecessary stress and harm to my right leg over time.

I would like to thank my whole family for their love and support, my criminal attorney, my civil attorney, my doctors, state senators and reps, my Counselor Ms. Tom, jailhouse lawyer Mr. Arroyo and WW for giving me the platform.

a guest author and Joe Piette

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a guest author and Joe Piette

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