Class Action Fights for Critical Accommodations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Prisoners in Illinois

May 18, 2011 in Advocacy & Access
Class Action Fights for Critical Accommodations for

Deaf and Hard of Hearing Prisoners in Illinois

Press Release 5/7/11

A class action lawsuit was filed today in federal district court in Chicago in response to the systemic discrimination by the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”) and its failure to provide accommodations to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. Denials of accommodations include the IDOC’s refusal to provide American Sign Language interpreters, technological assistance and other alternate forms of communication. Without these accommodations, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners are endangered and deprived of meaningful access to religious services, healthcare, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings, grievances and pre-release programs.

The lawsuit was filed by the law firm of 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. The lawsuit asserts claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the 1st, 8th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Robert L. Michels, a partner at Winston & Strawn who is leading the efforts of a team of firm lawyers involved in the matter, stated: “Winston & Strawn was previously successful in bringing similar litigation on behalf of deaf prisoners in Virginia. We are proud to partner with Equip for Equality, Uptown People’s Law Center, and the National Association for the Deaf in ensuring that the legal rights of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in Illinois are also protected.”

The IDOC’s failures have forced deaf and hard of hearing prisoners to serve their time largely isolated from, and unable to effectively communicate with, other human beings. These prisoners have even gone hungry and missed out on crucial visitors because they could not hear the announcements to leave their cells.

“This class action will force the State of Illinois to do what it is unwilling to do voluntarily: accommodate prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing and comply with federal law,” said Laura Miller, Managing Attorney at Equip for Equality.

The IDOC regularly jeopardizes these prisoners’ safety. For example, the IDOC has not made auditory safety alerts accessible to deaf prisoners. Without accessible safety alerts, these prisoners are unaware of vital warnings — fire alarms, warning shots and orders to lie down to avoid being shot. In addition, without the provision of communication options, deaf prisoners are forced to rely on other inmates to interpret and communicate for them, placing them in constant danger of exploitation.

“Prisons are unsafe, dangerous, uncomfortable places to stay under the best of circumstances. For prisoners who cannot hear, prison is a nightmare. Locked in a cell, completely dependent on your cellmate to let you know what is going on around you, unable to attend classes, religious services, talk to a doctor when you are ill, defend yourself when accused of violating a prison rule, and unable to talk with other prisoners — they are completely and profoundly isolated,” stated Alan Mills of Uptown People’s Law Center.

The lawsuit seeks an order from the court to remedy the IDOC’s past violations of federal law and to prevent future violations.

Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO at the National Association of the Deaf, points out the national importance of this case: “By refusing to provide communication access, prisons like those operated by the IDOC isolate deaf and hard of hearing prisoners from any basic human interaction for the entire duration of their sentence. This case serves as a warning to all prisons to comply with federal law.”

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

Holmes et al. v. Godinez et al.

A copy of the Complaint can be found at www.equipforequality.org

Organizations representing the plaintiffs:

Winston & Strawn LLP

Winston & Strawn LLP is an international law firm with nearly 1,000 attorneys among 15 offices in Beijing, Charlotte, Chicago, Geneva, Hong Kong, Houston, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Newark, Paris, San Francisco, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C. Formed in 1853, the firm not only represents Fortune 500 companies and other clients on major business-related matters, it also has a strong commitment to providing pro bono representation, including in matters involving civil rights, community economic development, criminal defense, First Amendment/free speech, contested guardianship, landlord/tenant, not-for-profit corporate organization, political asylum, post-conviction relief in death penalty cases, and public assistance. For more information, click here.

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

The Uptown People’s Law Center is a not-for-profit legal clinic located on Chicago’s north-side, founded in 1975. In addition to providing legal representation, advocacy and education for poor and working people in Uptown and surrounding communities, the Law Center also provides legal assistance to people housed in Illinois’ prisons with issues related to their confinement.

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.

For more information about the IDOC please click here.