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Ex-inmate settles suit over prison's failure to accommodate his disability

SALT LAKE CITY — Sentenced to five years to life for a first-degree felony sex offense in 1996, Richard Ramirez's parole hinged on successful completion of the Utah State Prison's sex offender treatment program.

The problem was, Ramirez — who reportedly has an IQ of 68, according to court documents — couldn't read or write the workbook assignments that members of his group therapy program were expected to complete.

While the prison occasionally provided him a tutor, he was unable to successfully understand and finish the material within the required time frame "due to his diminished intellectual functioning," so prison officials discharged him from the program, court documents state.

That meant he was not eligible for a parole hearing, which increased the length of his prison stay.

In 2014, Ramirez filed a lawsuit against the Utah Department of Corrections claiming that prison officials discharging him from the sex offender therapy program due to his disability violated his rights to equal protection, due process and provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Salt Lake attorney Brent Manning, who was appointed by a federal judge to represent Ramirez in his lawsuit against the Utah Department of Corrections, said his client "should have been able to apply for parole after five years."

Instead, Ramirez "was stuck in the prison for years longer than he should have been," Manning said. He ended up serving 18 years.

Under a recent settlement between the corrections department and Ramirez, who was paroled in 2014 and successfully completed an individualized sex offender treatment program at a community corrections center, the state will pay Ramirez $60,000.

Prison officials have agreed to consider recommendations from Ramirez, the Utah Disability Law Center and his legal counsel about how it can better accommodate the needs of inmates with disabilities, although a statement from the Department of Corrections says "the settlement does not require any policy changes."

The department, in a statement, said it is pleased it was able to reach a settlement in the case:

"The department regularly reviews its policies and procedures to ensure ongoing compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. … The department is committed to continuing to provide these treatment services and to working with community partners such as the Disability Law Center to ensure it is meeting the needs of inmates with disabilities.

"In addition, the department has agreed as part of the settlement to meet with Mr. Ramirez's attorneys so they can present concerns about access to treatment raised in the case. While the ability to offer sex offender treatment is limited by funding, the department expects these ongoing efforts will allow it to continue to improve the services it provides inmates," according to statement.

In 1996, Ramirez befriended a 15-year-old boy, showed him pornographic material and sexually molested him, according to court records.

In October 1996, Ramirez was sentenced to five years to life in prison upon conviction of forcible sodomy, zero to five years for a third-degree felony of dealing harmful material to a minor, and six months in jail for a misdemeanor count of lewdness. The prison and jail terms were ordered to run concurrently, court records indicate.

Four years after he was sent to prison, a mental health professional contracted by the state to evaluate inmates made a recommendation about Ramirez. "Because of his disabilities, the very first thing he recommended was that he had to have individualized therapy because he couldn't make it on his own," Manning said.

"The second thing he recommended was that he have group therapy and that he not be eligible for parole until he completed those programs. The idea that he can't get out within normal procedures until he completed it is a reasonable idea, except that the prison did very little to help him complete them given his disabilities," he said.

In group therapy, seven or eight inmates would meet together weekly or sometimes twice a week, said attorney Christopher Glauser, who worked with Manning on the case.

They were expected to complete written assignments in workbooks, read their entries at the following week's therapy session and have group discussions over what they had written.

"It was all premised on being able to read and write and being able to understand, although he can read some," Manning said.

Glauser said Ramirez struggled to understand abstract concepts because of his disabilities, which includes a mental illness.

"I couldn't figure out some of the words," Ramirez said.

To complete the program, "you have follow other people's stories and my life is not like anyone else's and I don't want to make it up.

"If you don't (complete the work as directed) you're refusing to comply with their rules," he said.

The Disability Law Center helped Ramirez file his lawsuit against the Department of Corrections.

The case was essentially "dormant until we were appointed. When it became clear this lawsuit wasn't going away as most of them do, Richard was paroled to a halfway house where he received the individual help and therapy he needed," Manning said.

Because Ramirez was no longer a prison inmate, he could not seek the remedy of systemwide relief requiring changes in policy or practice by the Department of Corrections.

He did receive a financial remedy, but $12,000 of it will be used to cover the costs of expert witnesses, Manning said.

"I didn't care about the money at all. I didn't care about it. I didn't even want it. I wanted some changes in there. They have to do something," Ramirez said.

"There's people losing their lives in there. You know how many people I seen die in there?"

Ramirez, 57, said he plans to purchase a home and get on with his life. He has become active in his church and occasionally visits the therapists who helped him complete sex offender therapy.

Erin Sullivan, staff attorney for the Disability Law Center, explained that the public advocacy law office has broad access to prisons and jails.

The Disability Law Center recently received a letter from another inmate serving a sentence for a sex offense that said more than 20 other inmates "claimed they are having very similar experiences as Mr. Ramirez not being able to complete the program because of their disabilities," Sullivan said.

Attorneys from the nonprofit agency plan to meet with inmates at the prison to learn more about their individual experiences and work for systemic change within the state prison system.

"We hope we can use your story and your courageous battle to get out to educate the public and create that systemwide relief because there are people who are suffering," Sullivan said, addressing Ramirez.

"The prison has been cooperative and we're hoping to schedule a visit later this month."