Georgia Is Denying Equal Access For Deaf Inmates, ACLU Lawsuit Says

Jerry Coen speaks to a reporter in Atlanta. Coen, a deaf former inmate, spent 10 years in a Georgia prison after several alcohol-related arrests and said he was denied access to programs that could help him overcome his alcoholism and anger issues.

Brinley Hineman / Associated Press

Georgia isn’t doing enough to help deaf and partially deaf people communicate while they’re locked up and after they’re released, which can lead to longer incarceration and more returns to prison, according to a new version of a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The new complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia accuses three state agencies of failing to provide deaf and partially deaf inmates, probationers and parolees with interpreters and other tools to communicate effectively. That violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, the lawsuit says.

The inability to communicate means they can’t adequately get basic information like rules and aren’t able to participate in educational, religious and vocational programs, it says.

As a result, “deaf and hard of hearing people are incarcerated more frequently, suffer harsher prison conditions, remain in prison longer, and return to prison faster,” the lawsuit says.

Jerry Coen, who is deaf, was an inmate when he filed a handwritten lawsuit in August 2016 and an updated version in January 2017 against corrections officials. The ACLU on Wednesday filed a motion to expand the scope of his lawsuit and seek class-action status.

The new complaint accompanying the motion was filed on behalf of Coen, who is now out of prison, and 13 other current and former inmates against the Department of Corrections, the Department of Community Supervision, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles and various state officials.

It says there are 134 people with significant hearing loss in prison in Georgia and an estimated 500 under state supervision.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath said in an email Wednesday that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But she said steps have been taken to improve services for inmates who are hard of hearing.

Access to interpreters is provided for those who use American Sign Language, she said. There are also devices that allow phone communication by typed text message, other technology to facilitate communication and a video relay pilot project at some prisons. Signs are used when making announcements, she said.

Parole board spokesman Steve Hayes said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

A representative from the Department of Community Supervision did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment.

The ACLU wants equal access to resources for non-hearing inmates, attorney Susan Mizner said in a phone interview.

“This is the tip of the iceberg of ways the deaf community is isolated in our society from birth on,” Mizner said. “The criminal legal system doesn’t take disability into account for anyone.”

Coen, 44, spent 10 years in prison for aggravated battery, burglary and false imprisonment, and said he was denied access to programs that could help him overcome alcoholism and anger issues.

“They never provided an opportunity for us to participate in programs and education,” Coen said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “And now that I’m out, I needed to know about the law.”

Coen says he can’t communicate effectively without an interpreter. In prison, officials sometimes relied on other inmates to translate. Once he was out, his probation officer often relied on his mother, who doesn’t use sign language, but instead uses “home signs,” Coen said.

For many deaf and partially deaf people, sign language is their first — and sometimes only — language. It has no written component and is structured differently from English, so written communication doesn’t work.

The lawsuit details daily issues faced by deaf and hard of hearing inmates. They miss meal and shower times regularly because they can’t hear announcements. Many oversleep and miss breakfast or work because they can’t hear alarm clocks and were denied requests for visual or tactile alarms.

Without interpreters during appointments with doctors or mental health workers, patients have trouble understanding their diagnoses.

During 21 years in prison, Tommy Green has had several medical interventions, including knee surgery and a painful procedure in which a camera was inserted into his groin. He never had an interpreter, and no one ever explained why the groin procedure was done, the lawsuit says.

Prior to Carlos Herrera’s release in May, the Department of Community Supervision provided an uncertified interpreter to discuss re-entry. The interpreter told Herrera to read the conditions of his release himself, because they were “very long,” the lawsuit says. But Herrera can’t read or understand English, and a misunderstanding could land him back in prison.

Isolation is a problem, too. Hearing inmates can speak to each other, but deaf and partially deaf inmates have trouble communicating with those around them, making it difficult to create relationships inside prison and maintain relationships outside prison, Coen said.

“They would see the hearing people call their families and be happy on the phone, but deaf people’s experience is quite different,” Coen said.

“Deaf folks are suffering, because they don’t have access to programs and communication,” Coen said. “They need to start providing accommodations: video phones, interpreters for programs, everything that they would need to enjoy their freedom when they go home and communicate with their family.”