The recent settlements achieved in litigation on behalf of deaf prisoners in Maryland and Kentucky will do a lot inmates in those states. But they should also have important ramifications for deaf prisoners and others with disabilities confined to state and federal prisons across the country.
The treatment of deaf prisoners by government officials across the country has been truly appalling. Some deaf men and women have actually been disciplined for not obeying verbal orders. Their health and safety has been endangered because of the lack of an effective way to communicate emergency and other orders.
Moreover, their ability to get medical care, participate in prison-sponsored classes, and communicate with loved ones has been minimal, seriously damaging the prospects for successful release and re-entry. All this clearly violates the rights of prisoners under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on disability.
That was why our organization, along with the National Association for the Deaf and several private firms, brought the lawsuits in Maryland and Kentucky. The settlements should mean a lot for deaf prisoners. They require prisons to provide sign language interpreters for classes, medical care, disciplinary hearings, and other communications. Visual notification of important oral communications will also be made available, and staff will be trained to identify deaf prisoners and treat them fairly and equally. As required by law, there now will be an ADA coordinator at facilities with deaf inmates. And the prisons will have videophones to allow prisoners to communicate with their families and friends.
A word about the importance of videophones. Most prisons in the U.S. still offer only teletypewriters (“TTYs”) to allow deaf prisoners to communicate with people outside of prison. Based on 50-year-old technology, TDDs and TTYs are totally inadequate. They require a person (or someone with him or her) to type out each word, have it transmitted via teletype over a phone line, have the recipient read it and type in a reply (assuming the recipient even has the antiquated technology)—and then the process repeats.
Since most people outside prison don't have such devices, a telephone intermediary who reads the messages typed by the prisoner is usually needed. Deaf people outside prison have mostly gotten rid of TTYs in favor of videophones. Since the two technologies cannot connect, deaf prisoners are often cut off from their family and community. That's very far from the effective communication demanded by the ADA and Section 504, and which videophones can provide.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of US prison systems do not have videophones, even though they are inexpensive and secure. At last count, less than six states use them extensively. One of them, Virginia, entered into a settlement similar to the Kentucky and Maryland settlements after a similar lawsuit we brought several years ago.
Virginia has proven that videophones work. But despite that success, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stubbornly refuses to use them, even after a deposition of the Virginia official responsible for their implementation in which it was explained how the system can be safely put in place.
The problem for deaf prisoners in BOP facilities is especially acute, since many may be far from home and in-person visits may be difficult or impossible. That's a particular problem for prisoners in the District of Columbia, whom we usually represent.
There is no prison in D.C. for those convicted of a felony, so D.C. prisoners are in federal facilities spread across the country. Our office has several lawsuits pending right now against BOP on behalf of deaf inmates, with more likely on the way. In addition, working with a team of lawyers in D.C. and Michigan, we have recently filed a lawsuit against Michigan, seeking some of the same relief as in Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky.
We are hopeful that the settlements in Kentucky and Maryland will pave the way for similar settlements, or voluntary changes, with respect to BOP, Michigan, and prisons elsewhere. Even if no voluntary resolution in other jurisdictions can be reached, the experience in Kentucky and Maryland, and in Virginia, hopefully demonstrates the effectiveness of videophones and other forms of relief, which will be necessary if such cases go to trial. As word spreads, we hope to help spread a true revolution in the treatment of deaf prisoners across the country.
We also hope for benefits for all prisoners with disabilities. As experience in Virginia has shown, having an ADA coordinator on site will help prisoners suffering from other disabilities receive the treatment that they deserve.
There's a long way to go concerning the treatment of prisoners who are deaf and have other disabilities. But 25 years after the ADA was enacted, it's definitely time.
Deborah Golden is the director of the DC Prisoners Rights' Project of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Elliot Mincberg is a senior counsel at the Committee. They welcome your comments.