Minnesota's Department of Corrections violated the civil rights of disabled prisoners by not granting them opportunities to seek needed modifications to its General Education Development (GED) exams, a U.S. Justice Department investigation has concluded.
The federal probe found that the state's corrections system discriminated against those with disabilities in multiple ways, leading to failed practice tests or official exams, a denial of access to other prison programs and in some cases prisoners being released without the GED they sought.
The Justice Department's investigation started after complaints from disabled prisoners. It found that Minnesota's DOC discriminated against disabled prisoners by failing to notify them about modifications for GED courses, practice tests, and exams; failing to give them extended time and breaks for courses and tests; and preventing them from applying for GED exam accommodations.
In a statement Monday, DOC spokesperson Nicholas Kimball said that the department was "committed to collaborating with DOJ, stakeholders, and others to resolve any issues they identified."
"Education during incarceration, including adult basic education, is critical to a successful transition back to the community for the 95% of incarcerated individuals who will eventually be released from prison," Kimball said. "We worked closely with DOJ as it studied the DOC's GED programming and are reviewing their findings."
Anne Raish, acting chief of the Justice Department's disability rights section, sent a 10-page letter of findings on Friday to Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, asking that the state prison system take new steps such as changing policies and procedures, putting an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator in place, training staff and reporting to the Justice Department.
Raish's letter outlining the findings was made public on Monday,
Raish wrote that the Justice Department interviewed 12 formerly or currently incarcerated people with disabilities and 36 Minnesota Department of Corrections employees at multiple facilities. The DOC also produced documents for review, including files of 24 incarcerated people with disabilities.
"While the MNDOC generally allowed qualified individuals with disabilities to enroll or participate in its GED program, the MNDOC unlawfully denied them an equal opportunity to benefit from the program by failing to provide necessary reasonable modifications," Raish wrote.
Around 1,956 of the 7,833 adults incarcerated in Minnesota as of July 1 lacked a secondary credential and were enrolled in a DOC secondary credential program, Raish wrote. DOC educational staff told Justice Department investigators that they believed most students had disabilities, according to the letter.
Raish characterized Minnesota's GED program as having a "gate-keeping function," where incarcerated people must complete the education requirement to be eligible to work in prison jobs and often earn more money. It also paves the way for access to any post-secondary programs offered in state prisons.
Staff at the DOC's educational sub-component, the Minnesota Correctional Education Center (MCEC) told investigators that although they knew that their students have or may have disabilities, they did not inform those students about reasonable modifications for GED courses, practice tests and exams. Incarcerated people interviewed by the Justice Department also said that MCEC staff did not inform them about their right to request reasonable modifications and "immediately refused when they requested such modifications in the GED program," according to the letter.
"For example, although multiple MCEC staff admitted that they knew that many of their students have disabilities and could benefit from modifications, the MNDOC produced no evidence that any students with disabilities ever received a written accommodation plan for GED courses or practice tests, as required by MNDOC policy," Raish wrote.
According to DOC data reviewed by the Justice Department, just 19 incarcerated people submitted written requests for GED exam accommodations to the DOC since Jan. 1, 2017. All requests came through one teacher at one facility and the investigation found lengthy delays between the requests or referrals for accommodations and the MCEC's response — some taking as long as 10 months to be processed while others were not resolved in time for exams or before a person's release from prison.
Raish wrote that the federal government "may take appropriate action" if the DOC declines to enter into "voluntary compliance negotiations" or if such negotiations are unsuccessful. Those who complained about the DOC's policy may still file a private suit regardless of the Justice Department's findings.