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Deaf Prisoner Settles Discrimination Suit for $150,000

Deaf Prisoner Settles Discrimination Suit for $150,000

by Mark Wilson

To settle what some are describing as a landmark disability discrimination case, Oregon prison officials agreed to pay a deaf prisoner $150,000.

Merle Baldridge, 42, is deaf and uses American Sign Language (ASL) as his primary form of communication. That became a tremendous problem for him when he began serving a four-year sentence in an Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) facility in April 2011.

“Deafness is an isolating disability. When a deaf person is in prison, it can be tantamount to solitary confinement,” said Dennis Steinman, Baldridge’s attorney. “Despite the requirements of disability laws that have been in place since 1990, the Oregon Department of Corrections has done little to accommodate deaf inmates. The result of this inaction has been that deaf inmates feel as though they were put in a prison within a prison. They have been excluded from the programs and services that are available to hearing inmates.”

ODOC officials routinely deprived Baldridge of qualified interpreters for medical appointments, counselor meetings, religious services, educational classes and rehabilitative programs. As a result he was excluded from virtually every program and service offered by the prison system, including Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups. Having “struggled with alcoholism, these services [were] critical to his recovery.”

When the ODOC did provide an interpreter, it utilized a fellow prisoner who was not a qualified ASL interpreter and did not know how to effectively communicate in ASL. Prison officials forced Baldridge to utilize that prisoner during medical appointments, giving him access to Bald­ridge’s confidential medical information. Baldridge refused to communicate through the prisoner interpreter when he suspected him of disseminating his confidential information to other prisoners, jeopardizing his safety. The interpreter physically threatened Baldridge for refusing to allow him to serve as his interpreter.

All but the most menial prison jobs require “good oral and written communication skills,” effectively excluding deaf prisoners from anything but low-paying jobs. Baldridge was employed cleaning toilets and was thus “denied an opportunity to work and earn” pay equal to non-disabled prisoners.

Baldridge could not hear the bells that prison officials ring to alert prisoners of count time, meals and line movements, resulting in his missing meals, yard time and other activities. He was also punished for not leaving the recreation yard when he did not hear a guard’s order to do so, Steinman noted.

The ODOC made available “TTY machines for hearing impaired inmates who wish to use the telephone,” according to Baldridge. “TTY machines are no longer a practical method for deaf inmates to make telephone calls. The vast majority of deaf people in the United States now use video telephones so that each participant can see the ASL communication. TTY technology is effectively obsolete.” Nevertheless, prison officials refused Baldridge’s request for video telephone access.

Previously, the ODOC sold only 7- and 8-inch televisions, which are too small to have effective closed captioning capacity. “In response to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice,” the state “agreed in February 2009 to adopt a policy in which it would allow deaf and hearing impaired inmates to purchase larger televisions with closed captioning for the same price as non-hearing impaired inmates are able to purchase smaller televisions,” Baldridge stated.

When he purchased a 13-inch television so he could benefit from closed captioning in 2011, however, the ODOC “failed to follow the terms of the Department of Justice settlement,” requiring him to pay $219 for his 13-inch television while other prisoners paid just $159 for an 8-inch television. This effectively required him “to pay more to receive the same benefit as non-hearing impaired” prisoners.

On April 20, 2012, Baldridge filed suit in state court seeking $900,000 in damages. He claimed that prison officials had subjected him to disability and employment discrimination and retaliation.

In January 2014, after almost two years of litigation, prison officials agreed to pay Baldridge $150,000 to settle the suit. They also agreed to implement policies to ensure compliance with Oregon law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and to provide Baldridge and other hearing impaired prisoners with qualified interpreters, video phones and other reasonable accommodations. Further, they agreed to transfer another deaf prisoner to the facility where Baldridge was housed “so that they can have the same important social interaction that is critical to the psychological support and rehabilitation of all inmates,” said Steinman.

“This case changes how Oregon prisons work with deaf prisoners so that they are integrated into the general prison population, rather than being further isolated,” he added. “State agencies and departments should be leading by example; this settlement is just the beginning of sustainable and meaningful change for not just one deaf inmate, but all deaf and disabled inmates across the state.” Steinman estimated that 20-25 deaf Oregon prisoners would be affected by the settlement. ODOC officials declined to comment. See: Baldridge v. Oregon Department of Corrections, Multnomah County Circuit Court (OR), Case No. 1204-04976.

Separately, another deaf Oregon prisoner has sued the ODOC for failing to provide him with a qualified interpreter and access to programs and services during the 13 years he spent in prison. According to The Oregonian, David D. VanValkenburg, 48, filed suit “for what he describes as a systematic failure to effectively communicate with him from the beginning of his prison term in November 2000.” His claims mirrored those raised by Baldridge, including the use by prison officials of an unqualified prisoner interpreter. The case was removed to federal court on June 6, 2014, where it remains pending. See: VanValkenburg v. ODOC, U.S.D.C. (D. Ore.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00916-BR.

In September 2014, the National Association of the Deaf, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf sent a joint letter to the ODOC, urging the agency to stop using other prisoners as interpreters for deaf or hearing impaired prisoners who use ASL to communicate. In addition to violating federal law, the organizations argued that having other prisoners serve as interpreters raises concerns related to “confidentiality, impartiality and conflicts of interest.”

According to ODOC spokesperson Betty Bernt, there are approximately 170 deaf and hearing impaired Oregon state prisoners.

Additional sources: The Oregonian; Press release from Kell, Alterman & Runstein, LLP

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Related legal cases

VanValkenburg v. ODOC

Baldridge v. Oregon Department of Corrections