In ending lawsuit, NJ agrees to improve special ed for inmates

Prisoners said they were denied access to education required under federal law
Credit: (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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The state’s oversight of special education in New Jersey has been contentious enough over the years, subject to lawsuits and federal orders over how best to ensure that students with special needs are getting served in schools.

Now the system is getting new court attention in how it serves arguably its most precarious population: school-age prison inmates.

Last week, the state and plaintiffs in an unusual class-action lawsuit announced a preliminary settlement that will overhaul the existing special-education system in the state’s prisons.

The case before U.S. District Court was first brought four years ago by three inmates in the state’s adult jails who said their civil right to an education and all its accommodations for those with disabilities were infringed upon, some maintaining they were receiving no educational services at all.

Landmark legislation

The settlement — which could encompass hundreds of inmates and former inmates — seeks to provide comparable programs inside prison as are available in public schools, as required by the landmark federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The state’s departments of corrections and education would agree to establish and enforce protocols for identifying students and their needs, to provide the instruction, counseling and other services required and to continue, if needed, to provide services beyond the students’ time in state custody.

“After years of negotiations, special education services will now be meaningfully accessible to people in New Jersey prisons,” said Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the ACLU-NJ, which represented the plaintiffs along with disabilities rights advocates.

“The changes achieved by this settlement drastically improve special education services for students in prison and put in place a comprehensive plan for monitoring the provision of those services for years to come.”

The proposed settlement still needs final approval by the court. The case relates only to inmates 21 years old or younger who are serving time or have served time in the state’s adult prisons since 2015. It does not include the state’s juvenile corrections programs.

Corrections officials agreed the settlement will help bring further improvements and said many were underway already.

“Since the litigation was first filed, the Department has partnered with the [state education department] to help in the identification of eligible students through obtaining student records and adapting community school codes and statutes for a correctional setting,” said Liz Velez, communications director for state Department of Corrections.

She listed other changes as well, including the hiring of a school psychologist and other specialists to oversee the individualized programs and to train teachers.

“The Department remains steadfast in its commitment to expand its offerings that support holistic rehabilitation for all,” Velez said.

Solitary confinement

Needless to say, education programs inside prisons face complicated challenges already, and special education even more so. Nonetheless, the allegations in the initial lawsuit were eye-opening.

The initial plaintiffs were three men in their late teens who all suffered mostly mental-health and behavioral disorders as they grew up, and had been identified as such in their local school settings. But once in jail, all related support stopped, they said. They cited especially the almost draconian conditions during periods of solitary confinement.

“Education in administrative segregation frequently consists of worksheets dropped off at the student’s cell, with no direct instruction at all,” read the lawsuit. “For young people with disabilities, who struggle to read and grasp new concepts, this educational method of providing worksheets without instruction results in frustration rather than meaningful education.”

The deficiencies weren’t limited to solitary confinement, either, it said.

“Other students leave their cell to attend classes in a structure enclosed on all sides by bars, essentially a cage,” read the complaint. “The students sit in the center of the cage, while a teacher stands outside of the cage and monitors the students while they complete their worksheets.”

After years of negotiations, the settlement includes more than a dozen provisions that would otherwise be standard practice outside of prison, including certified teachers in classrooms and programs for those with limited English skills. And it includes a specific prohibition against the use of worksheets as the primary means of instruction.

“We know this is a small piece of the educational picture,” LoCicero said Thursday. “But these are people, and they have their rights. The state owes that to them.”

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