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Virginia DOC Settles Lawsuit to Improve Communication for Deaf Prisoners

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by deaf prisoners. The settlement makes substantial changes to improve such prisoners’ ability to interact in the prison environment and rehabilitate themselves.

“We believe the settlement agreement in which the [VDOC] joined strikes a very fair balance between the particular needs of deaf prisoners and the requirement that the agency maintain maximum flexibility to operate its facilities,” said Brian Gottstein, spokesman for the Virginia attorney general’s office. “The agreement is comprehensive, covering deaf prisoner concerns from their entry into the VDOC through their eventual discharge and post-release supervision. The agency is taking advantage of modern technology to facilitate deaf prison communications at a modest cost to the state.”

The November 2010 settlement agreement is a comprehensive 26-page document that provides deaf prisoners “with access to services, privileges, facilities, advantages, and accommodations substantially equivalent” to those offered to non-deaf prisoners. To best serve the interests of the VDOC and prisoners, those who are determined to be deaf will be housed at Powhatan Correctional Center for males and the Fluvanna Correctional Center for women. Both are also reception and classification centers. For security reasons, deaf prisoners can be housed elsewhere if provided equivalent services.

Prisoners who demonstrate deafness or hearing impairments during initial classification will be assessed and tested by medical staff. The disability will be noted in the prisoner’s institutional file, and they will be presumed to require “Auxiliary aids and services in the form of Qualified Interpreters, visual notifications, telecommunications devices, and other aids and services” set forth in the settlement agreement. The prisoner will also be given an ID card “that clearly identifies him or her as deaf.” If a staff member takes the ID, another indictor of the prisoner’s deaf status will be provided.

A major part of the settlement is the provision for Qualified Sign Language Interpreters, which are people who are “able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially, both receptively and expressively” with deaf prisoners, “using any necessary specialized vocabulary.” Such persons are required to be certified.

A Qualified Interpreter is presumed to be needed when staff interactions with a prisoner concern any aspect of medical care, disciplinary hearings, transfer and classification procedures. It is not presumed to be necessary, but may become so, for a Qualified Interpreter to be provided for educational programming, work programming and communications that are complex and lengthy.

Staff is to interact with deaf prisoners as they do the non-deaf, and facilitate utilization of a Video Remote Interpreter or written notes. Provisions will be made for medical staff to interact during medical emergencies with deaf prisoners, which may entail the use of stun belts rather than handcuffs if care is provided offsite.

Housing for deaf prisoners will include a notice posted outside to alert incoming staff. A visual notification system to inform deaf prisoners “of prison wide events and events specific to” them, and to “advise them of an emergency evacuation or other emergency,” will be installed by the VDOC.

Virginia prison officials must also supply telecommunication devices for deaf prisoners. Wherever deaf prisoners are housed, they must be provided a teletypewriter, relay services or a videophone “so that they will have access to communication with people outside VDOC.”

Prison employees are required to receive training on interactions with deaf persons. The topics to be covered include best communication practices, the unique needs and problems encountered by the deaf, identification of their communication needs, the psychological implications of deafness and its relationship to interaction with guards, the proper use and role of Qualified Interpreters, directions about using telecommunication devices for the deaf, and disciplinary and grievance matters.

The named prisoner plaintiffs in the case each received $750 in damages, and all deaf prisoners in the VDOC on the settlement date each received $250. The settlement also included an award of $248,476.21 in attorney fees and costs. The district court will retain jurisdiction over the case for five years to enforce the agreement’s terms. The prisoners were represented by attorneys from the Washington, D.C. law firm of Winston & Strawn and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

The attorneys were pleased with the outcome. “We applaud the [VDOC] for its foresight and sincere interest in ensuring equality for inmates,” said E. Elaine Garner, the director of the disability project for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. “Provision of effective communication is critical to successful rehabilitation of deaf individuals who are incarcerated.” See: Minnis v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 1:10-cv-00096-TSE-TRJ.

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Related legal case

Minnis v. Johnson