Winning the Battle, Losing the War?: Judicial Scrutiny of Prisoners’ Statutory Claims Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

When he was convicted in 1994 of drunken driving, escape, and resisting arrest, Ronald Yeskey was sentenced to serve 18 to 36 months in a Pennsylvania prison. In addition, the judge recommended that Yeskey be sent to a motivational boot camp operated by the state. Upon successful completion of the boot camp program, Yeskey’s sentence would then be reduced to six months. Although he eagerly wanted to participate, the prison refused him entrance into the boot camp program because of his history of hypertension, and also denied him admission into an alternative program for the disabled. As a result, he was incarcerated for two years and two months longer than he might have been had he successfully completed the boot camp. Yeskey filed suit in federal court, charging that prison authorities had violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against him due to his physical condition. On June 15, 1998, that suit reached the Supreme Court. In Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey the Court resolved a long-running circuit split in holding that Title II of the ADA applies to inmates in state prisons. The Court concluded that Ronald Yeskey’s claim under the Act should not have been barred due to his status as a prisoner. The Yeskey decision promises to have far-reaching legal consequences. It has prompted many commentators to predict a flood of lawsuits from disabled prisoners. The Court’s ruling was lauded by others as a victory for the disabled prison population, as it may provide a mechanism for inmates to improve correctional conditions regarding diverse issues, such as the physical protection of disabled inmates or the reform of prison healthcare systems. Yet for all of the fanfare it received, Yeskey failed to address an equally consequential issue that has the potential to blunt the force of the Supreme Court’s ruling significantly: the level of judicial scrutiny that prisoners’ ADA claims should receive.