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$250,000 Paid By Virginia Jail to Settle Deaf Prisoner Suit

In December 2016, a $250,000 settlement was reached in a lawsuit brought by a deaf prisoner who was effectively unable to communicate during a six-week stay at a jail in Arlington County, Virginia. The suit pushed the sheriff’s office to implement new procedures to accommodate prisoners with disabilities.

Abreham Zemedagegehu, a homeless Ethiopian immigrant, was charged with stealing an iPad. Zemedagegehu, who is deaf, does not read or write English but can communicate via American Sign Language (ASL). For the first few days after his arrest he did not even know why he was in jail; his requests for an ASL interpreter frequently went unanswered.

Instead, jail officials offered Zemedagegehu a teletypewriter device to communicate with persons outside the facility. Not only could he not use it due to his illiteracy in English, TTY machines are obsolete because videophones are now used predominantly in the deaf community.

“I felt like I was losing my mind,” Zemedagegehu said through an interpreter. “I thought Virginia would give me an interpreter, and they said no. That’s why I felt lost.” He also said jail medical staff performed medical procedures on him without explaining them or obtaining his consent.

Zemedagegehu agreed to plead guilty in 2014 in exchange for time served; his accuser later found the supposedly-stolen iPad and recanted the theft accusation.

In addition to the $250,000 payment, the settlement agreement in Zemedagegehu’s lawsuit requires compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Further, the sheriff’s office must provide an ADA coordinator and staff training, and supply hearing aid and cochlear implant batteries at the jail. Other services for disabled prisoners are also being instituted as a result of the litigation. See: Zemedagegehu v. Arlington County Board, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Va.), Case No. 1:15-cv-00057-JCC-MSN. 

Additional source: Associated Press

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