Lawsuit: MI prison system discriminates against the deaf and hard of hearing

Grey sky looms over prison barbed wire and watchtowers
MI Prisons Facing Discrimination Lawsuit

A new class-action lawsuit, filed in federal court March 31, accuses the state of Michigan of systematically violating multiple federal laws in its treatment of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“The Michigan Department of Corrections has failed or refused to provide necessary accommodations and assistance in a consistent and comprehensive manner,” Chris Davis, and attorney with Michigan Protection & Advocacy Services, said in a news release. “As a result, it has violated the prisoners’ rights by infringing on their ability to communicate with loved ones, participate in medical and mental health care as well as religious and various other programs.”

The 51-page lawsuit accuses the DOC of denying the plaintiffs modern communication devices like videophones and telephone amplifiers, instead restricting them such “archaic” devices as teletype writers. In addition, the DOC allegedly fails to provide qualified interpreters, or interpreters at all, in many prison settings.

On one occasion, the DOC denied one of the plaintiffs a hearing aid in a misconduct hearing. Unable to communicate or defend himself, the plaintiff was subjected to 40 days in solitary confinement, where he sat in isolation for up to 23 hours per day.

In other instances, the lack of accessible communication avenues has resulted in deaf and hard of hearing inmates being denied access to medical care, education opportunities, and religious services, according to the lawsuit.

The risks are particularly acute in emergency situations, since the DOC allegedly has failed to install an effective visual system to accommodate those unable to hear safety alarms.

As the plaintiffs see it, these practices constitute violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment.

The lawsuit was filed by three persons currently in Michigan prison system, who are being represented by attorneys from Michigan Protection & Advocacy Services, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Covington & Burling, and Kitch Drutchas Wagner Valitutti & Sherbrook. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Michigan Protection and Advocacy Services and and Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.