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Federal Judge Gives Green Light to Class Action for Deaf Prisoners in Illinois Seeking Accommodations

A federal judge has granted class action status for a case filed to address the Illinois Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) systemic failure to provide critical accommodations to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. Denials of accommodations include the IDOC’s refusal to provide American Sign Language interpreters and other alternate forms of communication. Without these accommodations, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners are endangered and deprived of meaningful access to religious services, healthcare, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings, grievances, and pre-release programs.

In ruling that the case could proceed to trial as a class action, the court found:

“[T]here are considerable disputed facts as to whether IDOC has appropriate policies and procedures in place and whether those that do exist are sufficient or even practiced and enforced. … Plaintiffs presented significant proof of the systemic failures alleged.”

The lawsuit was filed by the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP, serving as lead counsel and providing representation on a pro bono basis; two Illinois non-profit legal advocacy organizations, Equip for Equality and Uptown People’s Law Center; and the National Association of the Deaf.

In addition to granting class certification, the judge denied the State’s motion for summary judgment, and held that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial with the class’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and claims under the U.S. Constitution related to the free exercise of religion, due process, and cruel and unusual punishment.  The judge also denied the IDOC’s motion to exclude one of plaintiffs’ experts.

One example cited by the judge (opinion, p. 31, fn. 22) demonstrates the devastating consequences of doctors’ inability to communicate effectively with their patients in prison:

“Childress believes that ineffective communication with health care staff resulted in repeated episodes of uncontrolled diabetes, including one instance where he went into a diabetic coma, and progressive kidney disease and dialysis dependence.”

“We are pleased that the judge has granted class action status to our case so that we can address the widespread discrimination that deaf and hard of hearing prisoners face on a daily basis in Illinois prisons,” said Barry C. Taylor, vice president for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation, Equip for Equality. “The IDOC’s failures have forced deaf and hard of hearing prisoners to serve their time largely isolated from, and unable to effectively communicate with, other human beings.”

“The court properly concluded that we have presented significant proof of systemic violations of the rights of deaf and hard of hearing IDOC inmates, and that our clients should be treated as a collective group that faces similarly unacceptable and dangerous conditions, not merely as random individuals facing ad hoc infractions of the law,” said Bob Michels, partner, Winston & Strawn.

“We are very glad that the court recognized the terrible mistreatment of people who are deaf and hard of hearing in Illinois’ prisons. The fact that the Department of Corrections continues its refusal to follow the law and provide accommodations to this group of prisoners should appall every resident of Illinois,” stated Alan Mills, executive director, Uptown People’s Law Center. “To deny someone medical treatment, or to discipline them, because prison officials cannot effectively communicate with them, is unconstitutional, illegal, and morally unacceptable.”

“Deaf and hard of hearing people deserve equal access to education, religious services, medical treatment, and telecommunications – even in prison,” said Howard A. Rosenblum, chief executive officer, National Association of the Deaf. “The judge’s decision has made it possible for all deaf and hard of hearing prisoners to show as a class that the IDOC has been systemically depriving them of their constitutional and legal rights.”

A copy of the Complaint and the Judge’s Ruling can be found at www.equipforequality.org/?p=5671

Reference:  U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Holmes et al. v. Godinez et al. 11 C 2961

 

Holmes v. Godinez Complaint (PDF)

Holmes v. Godinez Memorandum Opinion and Order (PDF)

 

Last updated: April 18, 2016

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