Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

New Jersey County Settles With Imprisoned Deaf Man For $175,000

On November 20, 2003, Mercer County, New Jersey, agreed to pay $175,000 to a deaf man who was imprisoned at the Mercer County Detention Center (MCDC) without appropriate accommodations and appeared before a county court without an interpreter. The County also agreed to provide injunctive relief.

On September 10, 1994, Ronald Chisolm, a deaf man who reads and writes English poorly, has limited lip-reading skills, and communicates primarily in American Sign Language (ASL), was driving in Mercer County with his roommate, Kenneth Knight, when he was pulled over and arrested by local police on an outstanding warrant. Knight, who knew only a little sign language, tried to explain what was going on but Chisolm did not understand. At MCDC, Chisolm and Knight requested a TDD (telecommunication device for the deaf), but none was provided. Jailers then misclassified Chisolm as a vagrant and a nurse labeled him a suicide risk because he cried and flailed his arms in frustration when he could not communicate. As a result, Chisolm was placed in solitary confinement where he remained for four days.

In the meantime, Knight contacted Clara R. Smit, an attorney who specializes in deaf issues and is fluent in ASL. Smit called MCDC and tried to arrange for an interpreter and for a TDD. Jail officials, however, told Smit that they were unable to provide those services.

On September 14, Chisolm was arraigned before the Mercer County Vicinage without Smit's knowledge. (A vicinage is a locally-funded county court separate from the state system). With no interpreter available, the hearing was adjourned for six days. When Smit found out Chisolm had been to court without an interpreter and that the hearing had been postponed, she took action. Smit located an interpreter herself, arranged for a hearing the following morning, and got the warrant quashed. Chisolm was released the next day.

Chisolm sued MCDC and the Vicinage in federal district court alleging their failure to provide him with interpreters, closed captioning equipment and TDDs violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, 42 D.S.C. § 1983, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Chisolm's claim against the Vicinage was dismissed in 1997 and summary judgment was granted to the jail in 2000. Chisolm appealed. The Third Circuit, holding that the Vicinage was not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity and that fact issues precluded summary judgment in favor of MCDC, reversed and remanded the case for trial. Chisolm v. McManimon, 275 F.3d 315 (3rd Cir. 2001) [See: PLN, May 2003, p. 26].

On November 20, 2003, after the jury was selected, but before the trial began, Mercer County finally settled, agreeing to pay Chisolm $175,000 plus attorney fees and to provide injunctive relief to all future deaf prisoners at MCDC. The injunctive relief includes providing interpreters, posting signs notifying deaf prisoners and staff that closed captioning equipment and TDDs are avai1ab1e, ensuring that every attempt is made to locate an interpreter whenever required--day or night--and making training and policy changes to implement the settlement agreement.

Chisolm was represented by Clara R. Smit of East Brunswick and Marc Charmatz, an attorney for the National Association for the Deaf. See: Chisolm v. McManimon, USDC D NJ, Case No. CV95-991(GEB).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Chisolm v. McManimon