The Home Office refusal to make special allowances emerged after a former inmate tried to sue the Government for discrimination.
It means that some prisoners with disabilities will be prevented from using many of the amenities enjoyed by other prisoners. These include recreational free-time, outside trips and the chance to earn money working in prison shops.
Mark Rutherford, aged 52, whose arthritis and heart condition mean he cannot walk without crutches, alleges that the prison authorities refused to make allowances for his illnesses.
Rutherford, who weighs 22 stone, claims that he was transferred from an open prison near Bristol to a much harsher regime at a closed prison in the town because the prison governor did not want the responsibility of finding someone to push him around in a wheelchair.
Treasury solicitors argue that the Prison Service does not have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This act places an obligation on "service providers" to treat "customers" equally.
Following the claim, lawyers and civil rights groups have called for an urgent review of prison policy.
The number of people with disabilities in prison has risen from 284 in 1996 to more than 400 this year. Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said she was watching the outcome of the case very closely. "We intend to put pressure on the Home Office to ensure remedial measures are taken as soon as possible to prevent similar discrimination in prison," she said.
The Government's position sharply conflicts with a Prison Service policy document, seen by the Independent on Sunday, which clearly states that under the DDA prisoners must be treated as if they are ordinary "customers".
Rutherford spent six months of a nine-month prison sentence for handling stolen goods at Leyhill Open and then Horfield prison in Bristol.
He alleges that he was denied accommodation in the Horfield prison hospital, where the judge who sentenced him at Bristol Crown Court had indicated he should be looked after.
Rutherford said: "I am very upset about what happened. I was prepared to accept the consequences of my actions, but not far worse conditions simply because of my disability."
A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said that it was still not clear whether disabled prisoners were protected by the legislation which she described as "relatively new." But she added: "We are vigorously defending this case."Reuse content