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Prisoner Education Guide

Sufficient Facts for Discrimination Hearing

by David Reutter

A Colorado federal district court held that deaf prisoners and prisoners in contact with deaf persons alleged sufficient facts to survive dismissal of the Americans with Disabilities Act claim. The court said the prison’s archaic, faulty communication system for hearing impaired prisoners failed to accommodate their disability. 

Plaintiffs Cathy Begano, Kandyce Vessey, and Jennifer Saugause are all deaf prisoners at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility (DWCF) who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Bionca Rogers is not deaf, but her deaf parents also communicate with ASL. The plaintiffs requested the use of a videophone to call family and friends. DWCF refused the request, replying that deaf prisoners are provided a teletypewriter (TTY) for phone privileges. Yet for this equipment to work, both parties must have functioning TTYs. None of the plaintiffs’ families or friends owned one, and the one at DWCP repeatedly malfunctioned. In addition, Roger’s TTY access was revoked because she was not deaf.

The plaintiffs filed suit seeking injunctive relief and compensatory damages. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, claiming Rogers lacked standing, that Begano, Vessy, and Saugause failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and that regulations related to reasonable peniological interests. The defendants also filed a motion to stay injunctive relief. 

The court held that for standing to exist for a non-disabled person, that party must demonstrate that she or he has suffered an injury due to a disability discrimination traceable to the defendant and that a favorable decision would redress that injury. Rogers was deprived of the ability to effectively communicate with her deaf parents due to the defendant’s refusal to allow videophones, and injunctive relief would rectify that injury; therefore, she had standing.

As to the second argument, the court held that plaintiffs alleged sufficient claim on which relief could be granted when they stated the TTY system in the SWCF was insufficient to supply the same meaningful communication with families as those without hearing disabilities. The defendants argued that they need only provide adequate accommodations, not the best possible. The court stated it need not determine the quality of accommodations, only if meaningful assentation was made. The threshold was crossed with plaintiffs alleging their families and friends did not own the requisite TTY for communication, and the one at DWCF malfunctioned. 

Lastly, the court held that prison officials may restrict a prisoner’s First Amendment rights if reasonably related to penological interests. That other Colorado jails were able to use videophones suggested that DWCF could implement the same without impacting security concerns. In addition, DWCP never once stated which security concerns would be affected. The matter, therefore, could not be related to reasonable penological interests.

The court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss, stating plaintiffs had sufficiency and standing, and denied defendants’ motion to stay injunction as moot. 

See: Rogers, Begano, Vessey, Saugause v. Colorado Department of Corrections F.3d 2017.

 

Related legal case

: Rogers, Begano, Vessey, Saugause v. Colorado Department of Corrections


 

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