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Federal Court: IL prisons violated rights of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners
2020-06-10

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Chicago ( June 9, 2020 ) — A federal judge has ruled that the Illinois Department of Corrections ( IDOC ) violated the settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit requiring effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. Monday afternoon, Judge Young B. Kim granted plaintiffs' motion to enforce the settlement after efforts to get IDOC to comply with the settlement's requirements were unsuccessful.

First, Judge Kim found that instead of using audiologists to conduct the audiological evaluations mandated under the settlement, IDOC improperly used licensed hearing instrument dispensers ( LHIDs ), who lacked the necessary training to properly conduct the audiological evaluations. Although IDOC argued it has now discontinued using LHIDs, the judge still found IDOC violated the settlement agreement by improperly using LHIDs for approximately a year. He ordered IDOC to allow class members who were evaluated by a LHID to receive a new audiological evaluation by a licensed audiologist by August 28, 2020.

Second, the judge found that the wait-times deaf and hard of hearing prisoners were experiencing before receiving audiological evaluations ( in some cases, up to 8 months ) were excessive. He ordered IDOC to provide the mandated evaluations within 90 days going forward.

Third, because of IDOC's failure to comply with the settlement agreement, the judge extended his jurisdiction over the case for an additional year. He also awarded sanctions against IDOC, requiring IDOC to pay plaintiffs' reasonable attorneys' fees and costs relating to investigating and litigating the violation.

"Audiological evaluations are a crucial first step for our clients, as they determine whether class members have hearing loss and need hearing aids. As a result of IDOC's excessive delays, our clients have had to wait months to get the tools they need to help them communicate," said Rachel M. Weisberg, attorney at Equip for Equality. "The Court's decision recognizes the seriousness of the issue and makes clear that IDOC's excessive delays and settlement violations will not be tolerated."

"We fought hard for the rights and accommodations provided under the settlement agreement, which are so important to the daily lives of our deaf and hard of hearing clients," said Robert Michels of Winston & Strawn. "We are glad that the Court's order requires IDOC to comply with the settlement terms, and to timely provide key rights afforded under the settlement."

"Prisons are terrible places for anyone. For someone unable to hear what's going on around them, prison is unimaginably terrifying," said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People's Law Center. "Illinois prison officials were making people who are hard of hearing wait for up to eight months before getting the hearing aids they needed to hear what was going on around them. The judge quite properly found this unacceptable."

"The IDOC has long neglected the communication needs and rights of deaf and hard of hearing people in their prisons, and continues to do so long even after the filing of this case in 2011 and settlement in 2018," said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. "The latest Court order found that the IDOC is continuing violations, and compels immediate change. Deaf and hard of hearing people have communication rights that do not stop at the prison door and must be respected."

The class action was filed May 4, 2011 and alleged, among other things, that IDOC systematically failed to provide American Sign Language interpreters and other alternate forms of communication. Without these accommodations, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners were endangered and deprived of meaningful access to healthcare, religious services, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings, grievances, and pre-release programs. A settlement agreement mandating enhanced hearing screenings, and audiological evaluations and assessments for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners was approved on July 26, 2018.

The plaintiff class is represented by the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP, serving as lead counsel and providing representation on a pro bono basis; two Illinois non-profit legal advocacy organizations, Equip for Equality and Uptown People's Law Center; and the National Association of the Deaf.

A copy of the court's decision in Holmes v. Jeffrey, Ruling on Motion to Enforce can be found here: www.equipforequality.org/files/Holmes%20-%20Ruling%20on%20Motion%20to%20Enforce.pdf .

Reference: U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois

Holmes et al. v. Jeffreys. 11 C 2961

Winston & Strawn LLP

Winston & Strawn LLP is an international law firm with 15 offices across North America, Asia, and Europe More information about the firm is available at www.winston.com .

Equip for Equality

Equip for Equality is a private, not-for-profit entity designated in 1985 by the Governor of Illinois to administer the federally mandated protection and advocacy system for safeguarding the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities in Illinois. For more information, visit www.equipforequality.org .

Uptown People's Law Center

Uptown People's Law Center is a nonprofit legal services organization specializing in prisoners' rights, Social Security disability, and tenants' rights and eviction defense. UPLC currently has nine class action lawsuits regarding jail and prison conditions. For more information, visit www.uplcchicago.org .

National Association of the Deaf

The National Association of the Deaf, established in 1880, is the nation's premier organization safeguarding the civil, human and linguistics rights of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the USA. For more information, visit www.nad.org .

—From a press release


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