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Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: “Federal judge signs off on plan to aid deaf inmates”

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BY ANDREW MALONEY
LAW BULLETIN STAFF WRITER

A federal judge has signed off on a wide-ranging settlement agreement for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners around the state.

U.S. District Judge Marvin E. Aspen this week approved an agreement requiring inmates be regularly screened for hearing issues and get access to teletypewriters, hearing aids or qualified interpreters based on a specialist’s diagnosis.

The case, originally filed on behalf of 11 deaf or hard-of-hearing inmates as Ralph Holmes v. Salvador Godinez in May 2011, alleged the Illinois Department of Corrections was not providing accommodations for them.

Such treatment prevented inmates from complying with guards’ orders, responding to alarms or defending themselves in disciplinary proceedings.

It also made it difficult for them to attend religious services, further their education and communicate with medical professionals. They claimed that was in violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The statutes generally prohibit discriminating against people with disabilities and prohibit the government from burdening one’s religious practice.

The constitutional arguments claimed the Illinois Department of Corrections denied deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates from basic rights and services that resulted in cruel punishment and denied them equal protection.

The lawsuit was certified as a class-action in October 2015.

The agreement, which Aspen approved Thursday, requires the state prison system to maintain a database of hard-of-hearing inmates, create communication plans that list specific accommodations for prisoners and conduct ADA training for staff members.

It also requires each facility housing such an inmate to contain at least two teletypewriters, video remote interpreting capabilities and amplified telephones.

Barry C. Taylor, vice president of the civil rights group Equip for Equality and co-counsel in the litigation, said the class contains roughly 300 members. However, Taylor said since the department may not be comprehensively screening for hearing issues, the number of inmates affected could be higher.

He said the changes approved this week will “result in systemic change” in state prisons.

“One of the main things that we think is important that’s accomplished through this agreement, there will now be a very systemic way of identifying prisoners who are deaf and hard of hearing,” he said Thursday, “There will be an initial screening, then a more thorough review with an audiologist.”

Taylor added that the parties will continue to meet quarterly with U.S. Magistrate Judge Young B. Kim while the agreement is implemented over the next four years.

The state can request to be excused from the agreement in two years if it shows it’s in substantial compliance with its terms.

Taylor also said the corrections department didn’t include any estimates of how much it will cost to implement the terms of the plan.

In a statement, a department spokesperson said the agency is committed to protecting the rights of those who are incarcerated, and giving accommodations to people with disabilities.

Video Remote Interpreting equipment has recently been increased and is available in all facilities, spokeswoman Lindsey Hess added in an e-mail today.

She also said the department has boosted staff training on the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

“The [d]epartment will fully comply with the terms of the Holmes v Baldwin settlement agreement. We are currently adjusting our policies to provide regular hearing screenings that will better identify those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing,” she said.

Taylor and Equip for Equality were joined in the lawsuit by Alan S. Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center, Robert L. Michels of Winston & Strawn LLP and Howard A. Rosenblum of the National Association of the Deaf.

The case is Ralph Holmes v. John Baldwin, No. 11 C 2961.

Last updated: August 01, 2018

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