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FCC Requires Prison Telecoms to Provide Services for Deaf Prisoners

by Jordan Arizmendi

Life in prison is difficult for anyone, but especially for deaf people. Without a video phone or teletypewriter (TTY), a deaf person cannot communicate with loved ones by phone. Under a new rule that takes effect in 2024, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will require prison phone companies to provide video communication services for prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing. Announced on September 29, 2022, the new order applies to prisons, jails, immigration detention, juvenile detention and mental health lockups across the nation.

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the deaf have a right to communication “as effective as” that enjoyed by others. Prisoners must navigate complicated prison bureaucracy, besides being able to comprehend what happens around them. Without special accommodation, a deaf prisoner unable to read English would find it almost impossible to obtain medical care, file a grievance, understand a disciplinary write-up or even read a prison handbook.

The new rule covers point-to-point video calls, which allow direct communication between two signing people. It also covers video relay services, a three-way system that allows a deaf user to sign to a speaking interpreter. Captioning telephones are also covered; these translate speech to text that a deaf user then reads.

The new rule excludes any lockup without broadband internet service or with fewer than 50 detainees. It also allows telecoms to charge for some services, such as point-to-point video calling – even in prison and jail systems where other calls are free. The rule applies only to phone companies, but prison and jail systems will likely fall in line, since many have been successfully sued under the ADA over a lack of communication access for the deaf.

Prison officials claim that videophones are difficult to monitor, so they have been resisting the changes. In a 2017 North Carolina court filing, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) argued that a videophone could be used to depict how to construct a bomb or cook up drugs. Moreover, how was BOP to monitor video calls, when everything communicated in sign language would have to be translated and recorded? Ultimately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered BOP to accomodate the deaf federal prisoners who were plaintiffs in the suit. [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.54.]

Similar suits have been settled in Kentucky, Maryland, Illinois and Michigan. [See: PLN, Apr. 2016, p.55; Feb. 2019, p.44; and July 2019, p.60.] The federal Department of Justice reached a similar agreement out of court with Vermont in 2021. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.54.] Another case settled in Massachusetts. See: Briggs v. Mass. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (D. Ma.), Case No. 1:15-cv-40162. In Tennessee, a similar case advanced on May 24, 2023. See: Trivette v. Tenn. Dep’t of Corr., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90755 (M.D. Tenn.).

Additional source: The Marshall Project