WASHINGTON – The ACLU is suing the District of Columbia, saying the city’s Department of Corrections violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the department’s own policies by refusing to provide a deaf inmate with an interpreter during his 51-day incarceration.
The ACLU and the one-time inmate William Pierce filed the lawsuit in federal court Friday.
According to the ACLU and the legal complaint, Pierce, a D.C. resident, is profoundly deaf. He uses American Sign Language to communicate and has difficulty reading written English.
The 44-year-old was sentenced to the Correctional Treatment Facility because the Department of Corrections believed the contractor-run jail could better accommodate Pierce’s disability and provide him with court-ordered domestic violence intervention and substance abuse and mental health assessments, according to the suit.
Despite repeated requests for an interpreter, the jail did not provide a qualified interpreter during intake, orientation, medical appointments and most rehabilitative classes, the suit says.
Pierce made 12 written requests and filed three grievances asking for a qualified interpreter. His case manager and his partner also requested an interpreter.
The requests were denied even though signs in the jail alerted inmates to “their right to an interpreter.” The suit also says that an inmate handbook promised access to programming and services without regard to a physical handicap.
Pierce’s partner was told the jail could not “justify” the cost of an interpreter and that it would take months to vet and approve an interpreter, according to the suit.
“Denying people with disabilities basic accommodations based on a corporate ‘bottom line’ is akin to a car company saving money by not installing brakes,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, in a statement. “The ability to communicate is not a luxury. It is a necessity.”
Spitzer hopes the District will settle the case and agree to ensure that future hearing-impaired inmates have access to interpreters.
The D.C. attorney general’s office declined to comment on the suit.
Pierce says he did not have an interpreter during medical appointments, despite the department’s Health Services Program Manual, which says “sign language interpreter services shall be made available to deaf and hearing-impaired individuals,” according to the complaint.
Because of the lack of communication, he did not understand why he was not receiving all of his medications or what tests were taken or why he was given additional medications, the suit says.
He was also unable to take part in substance abuse classes, which involve group discussions, because he had no qualified interpreter and could not communicate with the instructor or classmates, the lawsuit says.
Pierce also had to make advanced requests to use the only phone equipment capable of allowing calls for the deaf, which is outside the cell blocks in an office area that was only open during weekdays, the complaint says.
Because of the longer time it takes to type and read messages sent through the equipment, the phone calls can take longer than a typical phone call. A department directive specifically gives inmates as much as 40 minutes to use equipment, according to the suit.
However, guards limited his time spent on the phone to 10 minutes, the standard time given to hearing inmates, the complaint says.
Pierce’s hands were also handcuffed during visitations with his mother and partner, further limiting his ability to communicate, the suit says.
WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.