For years, four Stillwater prison inmates with physical disabilities had meals delivered to a spot close to their cells to avoid a potentially painful trek to the dining hall. Several have severe incontinence issues, and with no bathroom near the dining area, any trip there risked embarrassment.
In October, the inmates received notice that the meals would no longer be delivered, forcing them to walk more than 1,000 feet to the dining hall, sit on uncomfortable chairs and potentially soil themselves.
Prison officials told the inmates at that time that they ended the delivery program because improvements in the food service area can now accommodate disabled offenders. But the inmates weren’t told what improvements were made.
In the months since, the inmates haven’t been able to get to the dining hall for all three daily meals, and each has lost more than 20 pounds, said their attorney Justin Page. Although the prison has offered the men wheelchair access, incontinence pads and help with their trays, the men recently sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) in hopes of finding a reasonable dining accommodation.
“We want things to go back to the way they were,” said Page, who works for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Minnesota Disability Law Center. “There is no extra cost or security issue in having meals delivered.”
The four men, Nico Redding, 64; Michael Dahlin, 37; Charles Andrews, 67, and Vaughn Yaints, 58, have each been in prison for more than a decade. Two of the men are serving life sentences for murder.
Sarah Fitzgerald, the DOC’s director of communications and media relations, declined to comment on the suit Friday.
The suit, filed in Ramsey County District Court, claims the prison’s action violates the state Human Rights Act. It also accuses the prison of continuing to serve meals to other inmates in the unit where the four men are housed.
“The plaintiffs have suffered physical harm and emotional injuries including humiliations, embarrassment and anxiety,” the suit states.
Since the men aren’t going regularly to the dining hall, they have been buying food such as ramen noodle soup and crackers with their own money at a nearby prison canteen, which offers a significantly more limited and less nutritious menu, Page said.
The inmates who go to the dining hall are allowed to go back to their cells and use the bathroom during meals, but they can’t take meals with them or return to the dining hall to finish.
Also, if guards hold prisoners in the hall in the event of a fight, inmates can be stuck there for an additional hour.
Page said he learned about the inmates’ concerns through letters. His office reviewed their medical records and investigated before exchanging e-mails with prison officials. With no resolution in sight, the inmates sued the DOC, Page said.
The four plaintiffs suffer from a variety of disabilities, including chronic degenerative joint disease, spinal stenosis, herniated disc and sciatica. They don’t have the stamina for long walks, can stand only for a few minutes and need to sit in chairs with back support, Page said.
The DOC has acknowledged their disabilities, and has supplied the men with canes, back braces, and extra pillows. It also has allowed them to use the elevator and live in cells that are on the ground floor, to avoid stairs.
The suit said the inmates now have access to dining tables approved under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The most pressing issue, though, is the lack of a bathroom in the dining hall, Page said.
“It’s extremely embarrassing to have to sit in clothes soiled with a bowel movement or a leaky pad,” he said. “It can have serious implications with the other inmates.”
When Dahlin and Redding learned that meals would no longer be delivered, they wrote messages to Julie Ryan, the prison’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. In one correspondence, Dahlin was told the only way to receive delivered meals would be to move to a prison wing that is known for its frequent violence and where inmates are restricted for 22 hours a day, the suit said.
Most of the men can make only one trip a day to the dining hall, but Dahlin hasn’t had meals there since October, the suit said.
The inmates are asking for reasonable accommodations that will allow them to eat in the dining room. Those accommodations include access to a bathroom, a wheelchair and seating with back support.
“There is no reason for the DOC to deny the delivered meals,” Page said. “They were already accommodating them, and the DOC just doesn’t hand out accommodations.”