Seattle – The Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington, and the US Department of Justice today reached a settlement agreement to ensure equal access to prison services for the deaf or hard of hearing. The investigation and settlement resulted from a complaint by a Clark County woman who is deaf and who was denied assistance or service during her two days in prison. The settlement agreement calls for major updates to prison policies and procedures. The complainant is paid $ 25,000 from the Clark County Jail.
“When a person with a communication disability has restricted their freedom through incarceration, the ability to communicate effectively is vital. They must be able to provide and receive information about medical care, legal rights and their basic human needs, ”said Acting US Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. “This agreement will help ensure that every deaf or hard of hearing person will have the opportunity to communicate effectively and have equal access to services when they encounter the Clark County Correctional System.”
Following previous lawsuits relating to services to the deaf and hard of hearing, the Clark County Jail received tools and services to help ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, during the two days that the deaf applicant was detained, the prison did not provide the applicant with any of these devices or other interpreting services. Instead, while the complainant’s booking with the CCJ on December 10, 2019, prison booking staff attempted to communicate using written notes, gestures and typing on a computer screen. These less effective forms of communication were used with such critical information as collecting the patient’s medical history and informing the applicant about her basic rights, rules and resources in prison. The tools purchased after previous litigation were never offered or made available.
The investigation also found that prison staff are not trained in assessing an inmate’s communication needs, even though the prison does deal with many inmates with hearing impairments. Since 2014, there have been several lawsuits against the Clark County Jail alleging discrimination against inmates with hearing impairments.
Under the terms of the settlement, the prison will provide guidelines to the US attorney general within 60 days to improve effective communication with the deaf and hard of hearing. These guidelines include the appointment of an Effective Communications Coordinator (ECC) who is responsible for ensuring that the prison meets the requirements of the ADA. The guidelines also require that prison staff use a communication assessment tool at the time of booking to ensure that an inmate’s needs are being met and that staff take steps to ensure that inmates’ communication needs are reassessed throughout their incarceration. Under the terms of the settlement, the prison keeps a record of all requests for communication-assisting devices and how the prisons have complied with those requests.
The settlement requires the Clark County Jail to provide interpreting services in person or via video link for a variety of key interactions including, but not limited to: doctor appointments; Educational classes; Classification reviews; and church services. The prison will also ensure that all emergency alarms in the facility are communicated in an effective visual form to the deaf and hard of hearing inmates.
In addition, information on support services for the deaf or hard of hearing is clearly displayed in the prison. The prison will provide subtitled video orientation for deaf and hard of hearing inmates. Eventually, the prison will ensure that inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing have access to videophones to communicate with lawyers or family members.
The settlement also calls for the prison to change its restraint and handcuff policies so that deaf or hard of hearing inmates can use American sign language or hand-in-hand writing when security allows.
The US Attorney’s Office will oversee the Clark County Jail’s compliance with the settlement for the next three years. The prison will report to the US Attorney General about the training of prison staff, the logs of requesting and using auxiliary services, and any complaints about ADA compliance. The reports are due every six months.
The matter is being handled by Assistant US Attorney Christina Fogg. Ms. Fogg is the Civil Rights Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Washington. Find out more about our civil rights program here.