Deaf Va. inmates to get novel videophone system
Richmond, Va. — Lawyers representing deaf inmates say a recent legal settlement will make the Powhatan Correctional Center the first major prison in the U.S. to have a videophone enabling deaf inmates to communicate with family and friends on the outside.
The settlement, announced today by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Winston & Strawn LLP, involved a suit filed earlier this year for a group of deaf and hard of hearing inmates at Powhatan.
The settlement also provides deaf inmates with American Sign Language interpreters two full days a week, as well as sign language interpretation of rules and orientation, disciplinary and release proceedings, medical appointments, and educational and vocational instruction.
The settlement makes Video Remote Interpreting available 24 hours a day for emergency communications, and provides visual notifications about meals and events, said E. Elaine Gardner, the disability rights project director for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee.
“We applaud the Virginia Department of Corrections for its foresight and sincere interest in ensuring equality for deaf inmates,” Gardener said. “Provision of effective communication is critical to successful rehabilitation of deaf individuals who are incarcerated.”
Brian Gottstein, spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, said, “we believe the settlement agreement in which the [department] joined strikes a very fair balance between the peculiar needs of deaf prisoners and the requirement that the agency maintain maximum flexibility to operate its facilities.”
“The agreement is comprehensive, covering deaf prisoner concerns from their entry into the [Department of Corrections] through their eventual discharge and post-release supervision. The agency is taking advantage of modern technology to facilitate deaf prisoner communications, at a modest cost to the state,” he said.
Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections declined to comment.
Among other things, the suit complained that deaf inmates did not have adequate access to sign-language interpreters, visual notifications of safety announcements and devices that would allow them to communicate with family and friends outside of the prison.
It alleged the violation of the inmates’ constitutional rights, rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act — a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability — and other federal and state laws that protect the rights of disabled people.
Deaf inmates are held at Powhatan Correctional Center, a medium-security facility west of Richmond. As a result, deaf inmates cannot transfer to lower-security prisons if they are qualified to do so.
Gardener said the settlement significantly improves many of the long-standing conditions of the prison. Prior to the settlement, Powhatan provided an interpreter only once a week for six hours to serve all the communication needs of at least 15 to 20 deaf individuals at the facility, she said.
Because the interpreter was unable to assist all of the deaf individuals at one time and only visited once a week, deaf individuals were unable to participate in educational programs, communicate with prison staff and understand medical personnel, Gardner said. [Richmond Times Dispatch]