Feds Probe Denver for Violating Deaf Prisoner Rights

The federal Justice Department is investigating Denver for failing to provide sign-language interpreters for deaf prisoners. Investigators are seeking to determine whether Denver – which touts itself as “one of America’s most accessible cities” — is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a November 20, 2012, letter obtained by The Colorado Independent, the Justice Department threatened legal action and noted that any violation of the Act might jeopardize federal funding for the city’s police and sheriff departments.

“We would like to resolve this matter expeditiously,” wrote Mary Lou Mobley, a Justice Department lawyer.

The investigation stems from a lawsuit filed by Major Jon Michael Scott, who was booked into the Denver County Jail seven times between 2006 and 2012 on burglary charges, on warrants from other jurisdictions and for several parole violations. Scott’s guilt isn’t in question. He’s now serving time at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility based on a probation violation related to a burglary charge.

At issue is Scott’s profound deafness and whether the city violated the 28-year-old’s civil rights by repeatedly failing to provide a way for him to communicate with his jailers. Correction authorities have known Scott is deaf and that his first language is American Sign Language, not English. Yet many of his intake, classification and medical interviews were not interpreted for him, even though the city keeps an interpreter on its payroll and contracts with other interpreters.

“I don’t think I want to have this conversation,” Lorrie Kosinski, the city’s chief interpreter, said when phoned about Scott’s case. Mayor Michael Hancock’s office also refused comment, citing a policy not to discuss pending litigation.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating that, nearly 23 years after the [Americans with Disabilities Act] passed, the city still refuses to provide inmates with interpreters when they come into the jail,” says Carrie Ann Lucas, one of Scott’s lawyers.

Scott isn’t the first deaf prisoner whose disability has gone ignored by Denver’s jail. Even as the city failed to provide Scott with an interpreter, it was defending itself against a lawsuit brought on behalf of three other deaf prisoners – one of whom hanged himself in his cell. Shawn Vigil spent a month in jail without an interpreter before his suicide in 2005. The Sheriff’s Department knew Vigil was deaf but apparently didn’t take note that he was functionally illiterate and unable to understand a question on his intake form asking if he needed accommodations for his disability.

Another plaintiff, Sarah Burke, spent a night in Denver’s jail without an interpreter to explain what she was in for – a warrant for allegedly not filing the proper paperwork in a two-year-old misdemeanor case. The third plaintiff, Roger Krebs, was arrested in a Greyhound Station, where he was lying on the floor charging his text-phone batteries and didn’t hear a guard order him to stand up. Rather than waiting the three days he was told it could take to get a sign-language interpreter, Krebs pleaded guilty.

Their lawsuit — which was filed in 2007 and ongoing during five of Scott’s seven bookings at the jail — alleged the city failed to provide a sign language interpreter, didn’t have proper accommodations for the hearing impaired and didn’t train its staff to meet the needs of deaf prisoners. After a five-year legal battle, the city agreed in September to pay $695,000 to settle with Burke, Krebs and Vigil’s mother.

A trial date hasn’t yet be set in Scott’s lawsuit, which the Justice Department is following closely.

“We are… authorized to take appropriate action, including filing an enforcement action in U.S. District Court… if voluntary compliance is not achieved, and to seek injunctive relief and monetary damages,” reads the letter sent in November by Mobley.

Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations maintains an Office of Disability Rights. The office website touts city services for the disabled.

“Welcome to one of America’s most accessible cities,” it reads. “One of the primary purposes of the [Denver Office of Disability Rights] is to coordinate and spearhead the City of Denver’s efforts to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”

Scott’s case and others raise questions about the efficacy of that office and whether the city’s commitment to disability compliance extends to its safety department.

“We’ve seen a number of instances in which the police department and jail have violated people’s civil rights by refusing to provide the services they need,” Lucas says. “There’s clearly a pattern of discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Jean Andrews, a professor of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University in Texas, says hearing impairment is one of the least-detected disabilities. If deaf people have a little bit of speech, lip-reading or note-writing ability, they’re often presumed to be able to get by.

“That’s fine if they’re ordering a pizza. But it’s complicated at critical junctures such as jail settings when you’re being booked, classified and medically evaluated,” she says.

As Andrews tells it, courts throughout the country “seem to get it” that deaf people need sign-language interpreters in courtrooms. Scott, for example, got the interpretation services he needed when appearing before a judge.

But behind the scenes, Andrews says, the ADA goes ignored all too often by law enforcers and jails.

Studies show that the average reading level for an imprisoned deaf person is 3rd or 4th grade. This makes it tough for some inmates to understand handbooks explaining the rules of their incarceration. Jail environments present special challenges because sounds – guards shouting cues and buzzers signaling meal times or bed times, for example – are crucial. An inability to hear the clang of a metal door or the signal for a lockdown can mean write-ups or worse for a deaf prisoner. Deafness can create vulnerabilities to rape and violence.

“They don’t have anyone there to tell their side of the story. They’re vulnerable to being preyed upon. They’re vulnerable to suicide. A deaf inmate has no one to talk to and no one to answer any questions. It’s like throwing us into a jail in an Arabic country and expecting us to understand what’s going on,” Andrews says. “The reality is that jail can be a horror for deaf inmates.”

[ Prison image by Colman Lerner Gerardo via Shutterstock. ]