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Deaf inmates sue state prisons, seek services, technology

A group of deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and others claiming they are regularly denied access to specialized phones and technology that allow them to contact friends and family.

The lawsuit with five named plaintiffs, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and constitutional violations. The lawsuit was filed by lawyers from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, Foley & Lardner LLP in Washington and the National Association of the Deaf, in Silver Spring.

“In filing this class-action lawsuit, we wanted to address the serious discrimination that Maryland’s hearing-impaired inmates experience on a daily basis,” said Elaine Gardner, the director of the disability rights project of the Lawyers’ Committee, in a statement. “By helping our clients gain access to appropriate auxiliary aids and services, we hope that this case will set an example for other correctional facilities that house inmates who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Others named in the lawsuit include: Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services; the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; Maryland Correctional Enterprises; the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup and the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency had not seen the lawsuit as of Friday afternoon and declined to comment on it.

Joseph D. Edmondson Jr. of Foley & Lardner, who is working pro bono on the case representing the inmates, said he did not know how many deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates are in Maryland prisons. The state’s prison population is roughly 26,000.

In the 39-page complaint, the attorneys lay out myriad areas in which they say the department and the individual prisons have fallen short of accommodating hearing-impaired inmates. These include not just the telephone access issues but also limited access to American Sign Language interpreters for medical appointments and at disciplinary hearings in the prisons.

In another claim, inmates say that to access a telecommunications device for the deaf, or TDD, costs much more per minute than what hearing inmates pay. A TDD is a telephone equipped with a keyboard and a display screen. When using one to call a non-TDD-equipped phone, the calls go through a relay service, which is normally free.

In the prisons, however, the relay service is handled by a private entity, T-Netix, which charges an $8 connection fee and 30 cents per minute. According to the lawsuit, hearing inmates can use regular phones that charge 15 cents per minute.

Edmonds said the inmates would like access to videophones, which are rapidly replacing the aging TDDs. These phones enable the caller to speak with friends and family using sign language instead of having to type responses.

“What we’re really looking to do is effect change and make life better for these inmates, where it’s appropriate,” Edmondson said. “Obviously, they are not entitled to everything people on the outside have, but they do have federally protected rights and that’s what we’re addressing.”

In addition to telephone issues, the inmates claim that they are regularly denied access to programs such as stress and anger management classes because there are no accommodations for the hearing-impaired. Without the accommodations, the lawsuit alleges, the inmates are also denied access to educational and employment opportunities within the prisons that could help with their transition to life after they complete their sentences.

The inmates are asking the court to assess damages and to prevent the named defendants from refusing to provide interpretative services, TDDs, videophones and other hearing devices.