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Illinois DOC Sued to Accommodate Hearing Impaired Prisoners

A class-action lawsuit filed on May 4, 2011 is challenging the failure of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) to provide assistance to prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing. The complaint, filed in federal court, alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rehabilitation Act, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The failure to accommodate prisoners with hearing disabilities includes IDOC’s refusal to provide American Sign Language interpreters, technological assistance and other alternative forms of communication. Without such accommodations, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners are endangered and deprived of meaningful access to religious services, healthcare, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, pre-release programs, and disciplinary and grievances proceedings, the complaint argues.

The IDOC’s failure to accommodate deaf and hearing impaired prisoners regularly jeopardizes their safety. Prison officials provide no auditory safety alerts to such prisoners, making them unaware of vital warnings such as fire alarms, warning shots and orders to lie down to avoid being shot. Without the provision of communication options, deaf prisoners are forced to rely on other prisoners to interpret and communicate for them, which places them in constant danger of exploitation. In some cases, hearing impaired prisoners have missed meals or visitation times because they could not hear announcements.

“Prisons are unsafe, dangerous and uncomfortable places to stay under the best of circumstances,” said Alan Mills of Uptown People’s Law Center. “Locked in a cell, completely dependent on your cellmate to let you know what is going on around you, unable to attend classes, religious services, talk to a doctor when you are ill, defend yourself when accused of violating a prison rule, and unable to talk with other prisoners – they are completely and profoundly isolated.”

The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy past violations and prevent future violations, but no monetary damages. The suit was brought on behalf of Illinois state prisoners with hearing disabilities as part of a coordinated effort involving several organizations.

One is the law firm of Winston & Strawn, which is serving as lead counsel on a pro bono basis. The firm successfully litigated a similar case in Virginia. [See: PLN, August 2011, p.22]. “We are proud to partner with Equip for Equality, Uptown People’s Law Center and the National Association for the Deaf in ensuring that the legal rights of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in Illinois are also protected,” said Robert Michels, a partner at Winston & Strawn.

“The law is really clear that prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing have civil rights and those rights are consistently being denied by the Illinois Department of Corrections,” added Barry Taylor, with Equip for Equality.

Howard R. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said the lawsuit has national importance. “By refusing to provide communication access, prisons like those operated by the IDOC isolate deaf and hard of hearing prisoners from any basic human interaction for the entire duration of their sentence,” he stated. “This case serves as a warning to all prisons to comply with federal law.” See: Holmes v. Godinez, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:11-cv-02961.

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Related legal case

Holmes v. Godinez