Deaf inmates sue Ky. prisons over accommodations

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Associated Press

Posted on January 4, 2014 at 3:02 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A pair of deaf and hearing-impaired inmates in Kentucky sued the state, seeking to force the Department of Corrections to provide interpreter services for medical visits, video phones that allow deaf callers to see sign language and other hearing devices.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court in Frankfort, the inmates said the Corrections Department discriminated against them by refusing to provide the accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without the devices, the inmates said they can't adequately communicate with prison staff, other inmates and their lawyers, which deprives them of rights and privileges granted to other inmates.

"It's like being in solitary confinement even though you're in the middle of people," said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs in Washington, D.C., who represents the inmates.

A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections declined to address the litigation specifically. But spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said all Kentucky state prisons are accredited by the American Correctional Association and "receive exceptionally high scores" in reaccreditation audits.

Kentucky also offers telecommunication devices for the deaf so inmates can communicate with families and attorneys.

"In addition, we offer interpretation services to assist them with communication with other inmates and our staff," Lamb said.

In Virginia, the state and inmates reached a settlement to provide services for deaf inmates. Maryland, Illinois and the federal Bureau of Prisons are each involved in litigation about the issue.

Other states are also tackling the issue, with Mississippi providing hearing aids when recommended by a doctor and Florida designating several prisons for hearing impairment services.

"This does not mean that other inmates are not in those prisons, but we cluster the necessary hearing services into several institutions," said Jessica Clary, a spokeswoman for Florida's Department of Corrections.

There are no solid statistics on how many inmates in Kentucky are hearing impaired or deaf. About one percent of the general population is estimated to have a significant hearing loss, but no one tracks nationally the number of people in prison who have the issue.

The American Correctional Association, which accredits state prisons, offers only general guidelines for dealing with deaf and hearing-impaired inmates. The guidelines include allowing equal and appropriate access to safety, medical care and communication, but doesn't go into detail or lay out specific rules and regulations states should follow.

The result, Golden said, is offerings vary from state to state.

"Each individual locality gest to decide what's for them," Golden said.

In the Kentucky case, inmates Oscar Adams and Michael Knights are seeking class-action status to represent all hearing-impaired inmates in the state system. Adams, who is serving a 15-year sentence for sodomy, and Knights, who is serving life without a parole hearing for 25 years for murder, want the Department of Corrections to install videophones, offer interpretive services and other hearing devices. Without assistance, the inmates say, they can't communicate with attorneys, doctors and family members nor can they take part in educational or work opportunities within the prison system.

Attorney Greg Belzley, who also represents the inmates, described Adams and Knights as being "imprisoned within their own heads."

"It's what happens when deaf prisoners aren't given accommodations that permit them to stay in touch with their own families, participate in religious services ... and they have to rely on others," Belzley said. "I was just appalled the degree of isolation these people experience."

Golden said the inmates aren't advocating for early release.

"We're not talking about giving them special rights," Golden said. "I'm not asking anyone to excuse what either one of them did."

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Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this report from Tallahassee, Fla. Associated Press reporter Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report from Jackson, Miss.

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Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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