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Illinois DOC Settles Lawsuit Filed by Deaf, Hard of Hearing Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) has settled a class-action suit brought by deaf and hard of hearing prisoners who said they were denied sign-language interpreters for what was called “high-stakes interactions” with prison staff. Prior to the settlement, such prisoners had effectively been denied access to educational programs, medical visits, disciplinary proceedings, religious services and vocational training.

According to Barry Taylor with Equip for Equality, “If you can’t access those programs, you’re being penalized for no other reason except that you have a disability.” Although he estimated the number of deaf prisoners in the IDOC to be approximately 300, he said prison officials did not screen incoming prisoners for hearing loss.

 “From my perspective, Illinois really dragged its feet,” observed Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, who noted the case was filed in 2011. “Other prison litigation [has] been resolved in much shorter time periods.”

The lawsuit alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. 

“[I]njuries suffered by Plaintiffs as a result of the Department’s failure to provide the assistance required for effective communication,” the complaint said, included an “inability to adequately maintain contact with loved ones; benefit from educational opportunities (including academic classes, vocational training, and other programs) offered to prisoners; discuss their medical care because they can not communicate effectively with doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel; communicate with their counselors; participate in religious services; or access telephone and television services.” 

The settlement provided for the creation of a central database of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners, a special ID card, an assessment by a qualified specialist to determine whether a Certified Deaf Interpreter is required, and the services of a Qualified Specialist to decide if hearing aids are appropriate. It also provided for Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) services.

“All facilities which house a Deaf or Hard of Hearing inmate for whom sign language interpretation is necessary for effective communication shall have VRI available for communication regarding medical issues,” the agreement stated. “The VRI equipment shall be kept in good working condition at all times and, if broken, shall be fixed, or replaced if necessary, as soon as practicable.”

The settlement also provided for installation of a Teletypewriter (TTY) device for making phone calls. “All facilities which house a Deaf or Hard of Hearing inmate shall provide access to at least two TTY units or equivalent technology. IDOC shall enable all such equipment to access publicly available relay service phone numbers.”

Through spokesperson Lindsey Hess, the IDOC said it was working to comply with the settlement terms. “We are currently adjusting our policies to provide regular hearing screenings that will better identify those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing” and to increase staff training for compliance with the ADA, Hess said.

A joint motion for preliminary approval of the class-action settlement was granted in April 2018. The district court held a fairness hearing on July 26, 2018, and gave final approval of the settlement. 

According to a January 4, 2019 status report, the IDOC confirmed that hearing screenings are now part of the intake and periodic physical examinations, and it “has no reason to believe that its directive is not being followed, but it will follow up with Wexford [the prison system’s medical contractor] to confirm this.”

The database of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners has been compiled, and they are being provided accommodations that include “vibrating watches; over the ear headphones, Video Relay Service phone calls; and white boards to carry,” the IDOC wrote. Further, orientation manuals have been updated to include information about accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. 

The IDOC is required to provide status reports on its compliance with the settlement agreement every 120 days. The prisoner class members were represented by Chicago-based Equip for Equality, the National Association of the Deaf, the law firms of Winston & Strawn, LLP and Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff, LLP, and the Uptown People’s Law Center. See: Holmes v. Baldwin, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:11-cv-02961. 


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Related legal case

Holmes v. Baldwin