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Hear Us Now? Hearing Impaired Tennessee Prisoners Secure Injunction

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. ch.126 § 12101 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq., prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to reasonable accommodations so they can communicate and participate in activities, programs and services to the same extent as non-disabled prisoners. But hearing impaired prisoners in Tennessee were forced to file a lawsuit challenging the lack of such accommodations, resulting in a preliminary injunction (PI) on May 24, 2023.

The complaint was filed in March 2020 by Ernest K. Trivette, Alex G. Stinnett and Jason A. Collins, deaf state prisoners who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. They told the federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) denied them sufficient access to videophones and communication accommodations for medical appointments, classes and religious services.

Furthermore, they noted that hearing impaired prisoners were not alerted to emergency announcements, such as fire alarms. Also named as a plaintiff was Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT), a non-profit organization that’s part of the federal Protection and Advocacy Systems, advocating for people with disabilities.

The lawsuit sought equal access to phone privileges for hearing impaired prisoners, and in May 2021 the district court granted a preliminary injunction to make that so. The court found that the lack of access to videophones, which allow hearing impaired prisoners to communicate with their families and loved ones using ASL, resulted in “irreparable harm.”

Older TTY and TDD devices do not allow ASL communication. So the PI required DOC to “work with the plaintiffs in an attempt to formulate an interim plan for improving their videophone access” until telecommunications services in state prisons could be upgraded. See: Trivette v. Tenn. Dep’t of Corr., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 264238 (M.D. Tenn.).

Plaintiffs subsequently filed a second amended complaint, then a third, adding more plaintiffs and claims; the third amendment, for example, included one plaintiff’s claim that his release from prison was delayed by DOC’s “repeated failure to provide the auxiliary aids and services he needed to understand and participate in pre-parole, parole, and post-parole/preparation proceedings.”

On May 24, 2023, the district court granted in part Plaintiffs’ motion to file a fourth amended complaint. They are represented by attorneys with DRT, the Civil Rights Education & Enforcement Center and Disability Rights Advocates. See: Trivette v. Tenn. Dep’t of Corr., 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90755 (M.D. Tenn.).  

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Related legal cases

Trivette v. Tenn. Dep’t of Corr.

Trivette v. Tenn. Dep’t of Corr.