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California Prison Officials Ordered to Provide Qualified Sign Language Interpreters for All Deaf Prisoners

California Prison Officials Ordered to Provide Qualified Sign Language Interpreters for All Deaf Prisoners

by Michael Brodheim

In June 2013, the federal district court overseeing California’s treatment of prisoners with disabilities granted a motion for an order to enforce its prior orders, concluding that clear and convincing evidence showed that prison officials at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran had consistently failed to provide qualified sign language interpreters (SLIs) for deaf prisoners in education and vocational programs, and during mental health encounters with deaf prisoners housed in administrative segregation (ad seg).

At the same time the court denied a motion to hold the defendants in contempt, though the motion could be renewed in the event prison officials continued to fail to provide SLIs or other accommodations reasonably necessary to ensure that deaf (as well as other disabled) prisoners can access programs and services available to non-disabled prisoners.

In response to a series of orders in the class-action case, Armstrong v. Brown, finding that treatment of prisoners with disabilities violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, California prison officials issued an amended Armstrong Remedial Plan (ARP) in January 2001 that set forth their plans to comply with their obligations under those federal statutes.

Among other things, the ARP addressed the issue of effective communication for deaf prisoners, and specified that qualified SLIs will be provided “for all due process functions and medical consultations” when sign language is the deaf prisoner’s primary or only means of effective communication (with specified exceptions, such as when reasonable attempts to obtain an SLI are not successful, or when the assistance of an SLI is waived). Similarly, the ARP provided for SLIs to ensure deaf prisoners have access to academic programs.

In January 2007, the district court found that prison officials had “consistently and systematically” denied SLIs to deaf prisoners, causing them significant harm at medical and mental health appointments; in education, work and other programs; and during classification hearings. The court entered an injunction ordering the state to establish permanent civil service positions for qualified SLIs and to employ, “through whatever salary is necessary,” sufficient SLIs to serve the needs of deaf prisoners wherever they may be housed.

The court again found in October 2009 that SLIs were being denied to prisoners who needed them, specifically in education and substance abuse programs. To remedy those violations the court ordered the state to develop a plan “for rapid implementation and funding” of its prior injunction.

In January 2013, however, prison officials adopted a new policy they claimed eliminated the need for SLIs during the rounds conducted by licensed psychiatric technicians (LPTs) for prisoners housed in ad seg. Under the policy, the LPTs “ascertain the inmate’s mental health condition particularly during the[ir] first ten days” in segregation and “attend to the[ir] mental health needs.”

Prison officials contended that hearing-impaired prisoners could use hand signals to communicate with LPTs. The district court rejected this argument, holding that deaf prisoners could not adequately communicate their feelings by using hand signals.

The court also found that the failure of officials at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility to provide SLIs in 25% of the education and vocational classes in which they were needed “simply does not constitute making a reasonable effort to comply with [the] court’s prior orders.”

The district court ordered the use of qualified SLIs “during all regularly-scheduled mental health rounds,” as well as “at all educational and vocational classes” in which a hearing-impaired prisoner was enrolled.

In October 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an order by the district court that required prison officials to implement a plan to accommodate the needs of disabled state prisoners and parolees held in county jails under California’s “Realignment” initiative. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.48].

Following remand, on February 3, 2015 the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for “an order for further enforcement of the 2007 injunction, applicable to all [state] prisons.” The court found that prison officials were “regularly housing Armstrong class members in administrative segregation due to lack of accessible housing,” and that “housing disabled class members in administrative segregation solely because of their disabilities violates this Court’s prior orders....”

The district court further held that placing disabled prisoners in ad seg solely because handicap-accessible cells were not available was also a violation of the ADA. Therefore, the court entered an order prohibiting prison officials “from housing Armstrong class members in administrative segregation because no accessible cells or beds are available.” Additionally, “if Defendants place an Armstrong class member in administrative segregation due to the lack of an accessible bed, they must fully document their reasons for doing so. The documentation shall explain why the prisoner was sent to a prison that could not accommodate his or her disability, the status of all the accessible beds in the facility ... and all of the steps taken to find an accessible bed before placing the class member in administrative segregation.”

The class-action suit remains pending. See: Armstrong v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C94-2307 CW.


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Related legal case

Armstrong v. Brown