Handberry v. Thompson, 96 Civ 6161 (CBM) (S.D.N.Y)

Nature of Claims: This class action challenges the denial of general and special educational services to young prisoners in New York City jails in violation of the federal due process clause, the federal special education statutes, the state constitutional right to a free public education, and state statutes and regulations. At the time of filing, approximately 40% of the school-eligible prisoners actually attended school.

Current status: The lower court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor but allowed the City to implement its own remedial plan. After the City’s plan failed to cure the violations, the court entered a more detailed opinion and order. The City appealed. In January 2006, the appeals court held:

  • The City had waived or conceded the defense of exhaustion of prison administrative remedies, and there were no available remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • Federal courts are prohibited by the Prison Litigation Reform Act from enforcing state law through their supplemental jurisdiction in prison cases. A number of substantive provisions of the injunction were vacated and remanded to determine if they were based entirely on state law or whether they had a federal law basis.
  • The district court properly required compliance with the IDEA “child find” screening, development of a Temporary Education Plan within 30 days of enrollment, provision of a “continuum of services” as required by IDEA rather than what the district court called an “amorphous one-size-fits-all ‘skills class,’” and provision of space for counseling.
  • The district court erred in requiring formulation of “annual goals” for students, given the high turnover and short stays of the students.
  • State law creates a property interest in education protected by due process, but that interest is limited to requiring an education that is not “wholly unsuited to” the statutory purposes, which the court construed to mean a minimum of 15 hours a week.
  • The City could properly be required to pay for the “special monitor” notwithstanding the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s requirement that special masters be funded by the judiciary, since the special monitor does not exercise quasi-judicial power and is therefore not a special master within the meaning of the statute.

The case has been returned to the lower court to determine which of a number of other requirements of the order are compelled by federal law and not just state law. That question remains pending.

As a practical matter, the litigation has yielded very substantial improvements in education for the plaintiff class. The Board of Education now provides education at all the Rikers Island jails, with about 90% rather than 40% of school-eligible prisoners attending school. A new high school was created.

Serious problems remain. Disabled inmates often do not receive the special education services they require. Services to punitive segregation inmates were described by the district court as “pathetic” and “abysmal.” The appellate holding requiring compliance with the 15-hours-weekly education requirement may mitigate this last problem, as does the affirmance (in the absence of any contrary argument by the City) of the provision requiring special education services to continue even for prisoners in a restricted setting; special education prisoners are disproportionately found in punitive segregation.

Persons Affected: Approximately 1,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 21 in the New York City jails, about 40% of whom are learning-disabled and entitled to special education.

Reported decisions: Handberry v. Thompson, 92 F.Supp.2d 244 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (granting summary judgment to plaintiffs); Handberry v. Thompson, 219 F.Supp.2d 525 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (entering injunction); Handberry v. Thompson, 2003 WL 194205 (S.D.N.Y., Jan. 28, 2003) (reinstating injunction after findings administrative remedies unavailable and exhaustion waived); Handberry v. Thompson, 2003 WL 179850 (S.D.N.Y., Apr. 4, 2003) (granting partial stay pending appeal, refusing modification of monitoring provisions); Handberry v. Thompson, 446 F.3d 335 (2d Cir. 2006) (affirming in part, vacating in part, and remanding).