Gregory Hammond is blind, and prison cells are small.
Those two details matter because they show how hard it was for him to avoid what happened to him in a Maryland prison on a day he has tried to forget.
As he tells it, he was walking through his cramped cell when he tripped on a cord he didn’t see and knocked over his cellmate’s TV, breaking it. It was an accident, and Hammond later paid to replace the TV. But on that day, he said, his cellmate beat him so badly that bruises covered his face and pain gripped his chest and ribs.
Then, he said, he faced another indignity. He needed medical attention, but he couldn’t fill out the required request form by himself. He had relied on his cellmate to help him with all his paperwork, he said, which meant this:
To get medical attention for the assault, he would have to ask his assailant to fill out the request form for him.
“Of course, he wouldn’t,” Hammond said. When Hammond realized he could do nothing about the assault, he said, “I was frightened, depressed and embarrassed.”
I spoke to Hammond this week after learning that the Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $1.4 million settlement payment to him and eight other current and former blind inmates who had filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The settlement is significant for several reasons. Not only will it change how Maryland treats blind inmates, but disability rights experts say it also offers an important look at what is happening to inmates with disabilities in other states.
“This is something we see across the country,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. People with a variety of disabilities are being mistreated in correctional facilities that are obligated to provide them accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said. “These people have not lost their rights for these type of services just because they are incarcerated.”
“These are not perks or special treatment,” he said. “They are things that are basic rights.”
Chris Danielsen, of the National Federation of the Blind, which sponsored the lawsuit, described what happened in Maryland as a “dramatic example of the consequences that can occur when any sector of society fails to meet its obligation to blind people and people with disabilities.”
The lawsuit details how blind inmates, even if they were eligible to serve time at a lower-security facility, were placed at the medium-security Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. There, according to the suit, they were forced to rely on other prisoners to help them get around, read their mail and fill out forms — and that left them vulnerable to “extortion, sexual exploitation and violence.”
“Why would they trust other criminals and inmates with that responsibility?” said Hammond, who lost his vision as a result of multiple sclerosis.
The 37-year-old, who was convicted of robbery, is now out of prison but said he still thinks about the year he spent at Roxbury. It changed him, he said. He now takes medication daily for depression.
“I know I’m never going to be able to forget about the things that happened to me in there,” he said. “I don’t like being around too many people. I’m always scared, always watching my back.”
When he first arrived at Roxbury, he said, his cellmate, who at first didn’t live with him, was assigned as his “walker,” the person who was supposed to guide him through the complex. In the months that followed, Hammond said, the man assaulted him more than 10 times, extorted money from him and, after seeing a picture of his mother in a letter, started pressuring him to hand over her contact information. Another inmate got hold of his younger sister’s address and started writing her letters containing sexual advances, he said.
“She was worried,” Hammond said. “If he’s writing her, then he has her address.”
Tyrell Polley, another blind inmate named in the lawsuit, said he tried to mostly use the phone to speak to his family because he didn’t want their addresses exposed. The 29-year-old lost his eyesight after he was shot in the head in 2011.
When he arrived at Roxbury to serve time for a probation violation, he said, he spent the first few weeks fending mostly for himself. As he describes it: He was handed a prison handbook on printed paper he couldn’t read. He missed meals because he didn’t know how to get to the chow hall. And he held on to walls to guide himself through the buildings. After he hit his head on a stairwell and needed medical attention, he said, he was finally given a cane.
Inmates who were supposed to help him often took advantage of him, Polley said. They wouldn’t fill out his commissary form unless he also bought them items. In his cell, he had a locker, but items were stolen from it.
He said he had no way to secure it for months because he was told to buy a combination lock and he knew that would require telling his cellmate the code.
“They make you feel real low in there,” he said. “There’s a couple guys that had some real bad things happen to them. Nobody should have to go through that just because they have a physical disability.”
Eve Hill, an attorney with Brown, Goldstein & Levy, the law firm that handled the case, said that the prison system, as part of the settlement, has agreed to change policies and put in place technology that will help the blind inmates. It will, among other things, set up computers with text-to-speech software and screen prisoners before they are assigned to work with the inmates.
“This is going to make them a leader in addressing these issues,” Hill said of Maryland. “This is a model for other prison systems. This is how you do it.”
Hammond said that even though he is no longer behind those bars, it gives him peace knowing the men who remain there will get help.
“I feel good about that,” he said.
He said that for a while, some of the blind inmates decided they could rely only on one another, so for a time, he guided Polley through the complex. The twisted reality of that was not lost on him.
“They literally had the blind leading the blind,” he said.