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Deaf Prisoners Win Important Settlements in Kentucky and Maryland

Deaf and hard of hearing prisoners have been doubly punished in many prisons and jails, their disability often not only limiting their access to programs, services and communication with the outside world, but also putting them at risk of physical harm and unnecessary discipline due to their inability to hear. In Kentucky and Maryland, the National Association of the Deaf and the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs have won substantial settlements with corrections departments in both states that hopefully signal a growing trend to respect the rights of prisoners with hearing impairments.

The lawsuit in Maryland was Jarboe v. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and the Kentucky case was Adams v. Commonwealth of Kentucky. Both addressed important and often overlooked issues involving violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act (RA).

According to Deborah M. Golden, director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, “There has been a pattern of mistreatment of deaf prisoners around the country, including even disciplining some for not obeying orders they could not hear. These settlements should ensure proper treatment under federal law for prisoners in Kentucky and Maryland and also serve as a model for other states and the federal government. We commend Maryland and Kentucky for their leadership, and thank all of our co-counsel for their tremendous work on these cases.”

The ADA, RA and other federal laws are intended to protect all Americans, including prisoners. Under the ADA, prisoners with hearing disabilities are supposed to have access to TTY phones, relay services, videophones and other auxiliary aids and services. If needed, they are to receive sign language interpreters for disciplinary and classification hearings, medical appointments, educational programs, work assignments and religious services. However, the reality in most penal institutions is much different.

This was reflected in the comments of Howard A. Rosenbaum, legal director of the National Association of the Deaf: “Even in prisons, prisoners have basic human rights which are routinely and appallingly denied to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners across the country. Maryland and Kentucky join only a few states in ensuring equal access is provided to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. We hope all state and federal prisons will recognize their obligations and comply with federal laws without further delay. We appreciate the hard work of the legal teams whose work gave back to these prisoners their rights and dignity.”

According to the attorneys who handled both cases, the settlements ensure that “deaf inmates will be able to communicate with people outside of prison, just as hearing inmates can ... [receive] adequate visual notification of oral announcements concerning emergencies and other events, [and gain] access to sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids and services.” Further, the settlements require the implementation of “necessary policies, training, outreach to prisoners, and monitoring to ensure equal treatment by prison officials.”

The Maryland settlement, finalized in February 2015, also provided for the payment of $142,500 in attorney fees and costs, while the May 2015 settlement in the Kentucky lawsuit included $1,500 in damages for each of the two lead plaintiffs plus $250,000 in fees and costs. See: Jarboe v. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, U.S.D.C. (D. Md.), Case No. 1:12-cv-00572-ELH; and Adams v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Ky.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00001-GFVT-EBA. 

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Related legal cases

Jarboe v. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services

Adams v. Commonwealth of Kentucky