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Michigan: Settlement in Class-Action Suit by Prisoners with Hearing Disabilities

by Douglas Ankney

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has approved a final settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service (MPAAS) on behalf of about 200 deaf and hard of hearing prisoners held by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). 

Federal judge Sean Cox determined that the MDOC had, for years, violated the class members’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires public facilities, including prisons, to accommodate people with disabilities to ensure they receive the same level of services and programs available to those who are not disabled.

Evidence in the case revealed that hearing-impaired prisoners had no way of communicating with loved ones by phone, would not be notified in an emergency such as a fire and were forced to attend disciplinary hearings without hearing aids or sign language interpreters. Judge Cox had previously ordered the MDOC to: 1) make videophones available to all hearing-impaired prisoners; 2) provide hearing-impaired prisoners with necessary auxiliary aids, including American Sign Language interpreters, to ensure they could equally participate in prison programs and services; 3) institute mandatory training for MDOC staff on how to identify and appropriately interact with hearing-impaired prisoners; and 4) adopt effective and comprehensive policies and procedures in each of those areas.

The settlement further requires the MDOC to provide hearing assessments for prisoners when they enter the prison system and when requested at annual physical exams; to house hearing-impaired prisoners at special facilities designed to accommodate their needs; to install non-auditory notification systems so hearing-impaired prisoners do not miss announcements, alarms and other information; to appoint Michael K. Brady, the director of Sabot Consulting’s Criminal Justice Division, to monitor the MDOC’s compliance with the agreement for two years; and to pay attorney fees and costs totaling $1.3 million. See: McBride v. Michigan Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 2:15-cv-11222-SFC-DRG.

Michigan’s prison system now has an ADA coordinator for each facility. But that didn’t occur until after Judge Cox granted preliminary approval of the settlement. Additionally, until he issued favorable rulings on some of the prisoners’ claims, including granting in part and denying in part the defendants’ summary judgment motion in March 2018, the MDOC didn’t even have a policy for classifying hearing-impaired prisoners. 

“Prior to the commencement of this action, it is undisputed that the MDOC did not have guidelines for medically classifying prisoners with hearing deficits, and had no policies related to housing such prisoners at appropriately designated facilities, or to providing specific communications accommodations,” stated U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand.

MPAAS attorney Chris Davis said a notice about the settlement, which was approved by the district court on March 29, 2019, prompted many prisoners with other types of disabilities to contact his agency. Mark Cody, the legal director for MPAAS, said they are particularly concerned about prison officials using solitary confinement as a method for dealing with prisoners who have mental health issues.

According to the MDOC, an estimated 24 percent of the state’s prison population, or around 9,500 prisoners, have mental health problems.

Other prisoners with disabilities not addressed in this suit include Marvin Bennett, who had a chronic herniated disk in his spine. At his initial medical assessment, Bennett was assigned to a ground floor and bottom bunk. Yet when he arrived at the former Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit, he was assigned a cell on the fourth floor. Bennett fell down the stairs, after which he needed a wheelchair. According to attorney Teresa German, Bennett settled his lawsuit against prison officials after the district court allowed his ADA claims to proceed. 


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