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updated: 5/4/2011 4:48 PM

Deaf inmates sue for access to interpreters

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  • This combination of undated photos provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections shows 11 inmates who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that was filed Wednesday in Chicago claiming Illinois violates the rights of deaf prisoners by limiting access to interpreters and other assistance behind bars. The inmates are, top from left: Ralph Holmes, 41, Daniel Baxter, 57, George Childress, 60, Hannibal Eason, 28; middle from left: Curtis Foster, 46, Curtis Halterman, 40, Billy Johnson, 28, Wendell Lancaster, 37; bottom from left, Daniel Lord, 44, Aaron Winfert, 31, and Jason Wright, 32.

      This combination of undated photos provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections shows 11 inmates who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that was filed Wednesday in Chicago claiming Illinois violates the rights of deaf prisoners by limiting access to interpreters and other assistance behind bars. The inmates are, top from left: Ralph Holmes, 41, Daniel Baxter, 57, George Childress, 60, Hannibal Eason, 28; middle from left: Curtis Foster, 46, Curtis Halterman, 40, Billy Johnson, 28, Wendell Lancaster, 37; bottom from left, Daniel Lord, 44, Aaron Winfert, 31, and Jason Wright, 32.
    Associated Press

 
By Carla K. Johnson
Associated Press

A deaf prisoner punished when he couldn't explain that he didn't steal food is among 11 inmates who filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming Illinois violates their civil rights by denying them the help they need to communicate.

The lawsuit claims deaf and partially deaf prisoners have limited access to sign language interpreters, which effectively excludes them from training programs and religious services. They often can't discuss medical care with their doctors and have missed meals and visitors because they can't hear announcements, according to the complaint filed in federal court.

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The lawsuit claims the Illinois Department of Corrections is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws. It asks the court for a mediated settlement conference and other relief.

Virginia settled a similar lawsuit last year, agreeing to provide videophones, interpreters and visual notification of meals and events in prisons there.

Attorney Bob Michels of Chicago-based Winston & Strawn represents the 11 male inmates named as plaintiffs in the Illinois lawsuit. The men, who have different degrees of hearing loss, are in prisons in Dixon, Ina, Joliet, Jacksonville, Menard and Hillsboro.

"While these individuals are serving time, they still have the basic, fundamental human rights to communicate and not be discriminated against compared to other inmates," Michels said. The law firm represented plaintiffs in the Virginia case and is handling the Illinois case pro bono, with assistance from Equip for Equality, Uptown People's Law Center and the National Association of the Deaf.

Named as defendants are Salvador Godinez, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and Rachel McKinzie, the department's disabilities coordinator.

"We have not seen the lawsuit and therefore have no comment," department spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said in an email.

Plaintiff George Childress, 60, is serving time at Dixon Correctional Center. He uses sign language to communicate, is completely deaf in one ear and uses a hearing aid in the other. According to the lawsuit, Childress gets an orange, peanut butter and bread nightly because he has diabetes. Once, a warden saw the food and accused Childress of stealing it, the lawsuit states.

Childress was unable to explain why he had the food because of his disability so "the warden took the food and gave Mr. Childress a ticket. As punishment, Mr. Childress was deprived of his commissary privileges for 15 days," according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiff Curtis Foster, 46, a partially deaf prisoner at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, was told there was no interpreter available for religious services, the lawsuit says. "Mr. Foster attends religious services at Stateville, but is not provided with any communication assistance, and thus does not know what is being said during the services," the lawsuit states.

The complaint claims inmates are routinely handcuffed during disciplinary hearings, which prevents them from using sign language to defend themselves. The Department of Corrections has denied requests from prisoners for a visual system that would alert them to safety announcements and fire alarms, the lawsuit states. Accessible telephones and closed-captioning on televisions are not always available to deaf inmates.

The plaintiffs are seeking class action status for the case. If approved, the plaintiffs would represent current and future deaf and partially deaf Illinois inmates.

Deaf inmate Lance Cariveau, 42, isn't a plaintiff but hopes the lawsuit will lead to changes for him, said his sister, Yvonne Cariveau of Mankato, Minn.

Serving time at Jacksonville Correctional Center, he may not get a chance at a six-month sentence reduction if he's denied an interpreter to assist him in a drug-abuse prevention class, Yvonne Cariveau said. He complained about the situation in a recent letter to her. In wording that his sister said illustrates his lack of fluency in written English, he said he felt he wasn't being treated like the other inmates:

"All hearing Inmate can get 6 months off for only 3 month of program that I want to do that my Worry if I can't," he wrote. American Sign Language is Cariveau's preferred way to communicate, his sister said, "his first language."

Howard Rosenblum, CEO at the National Association of the Deaf, said the case serves as a warning to all prisons to comply with federal law.

The case is Holmes v. Godinez.

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