February 1, 2013

A deaf former D.C. inmate sentenced last year to 60 days for assault alleges in a lawsuit filed Friday that he was denied medical care in a correctional facility, held in solitary confinement for complaining about conditions and handcuffed in a way that kept him from communicating through sign language.

William Pierce, 44, also said in the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union, that he was denied access to an interpreter and handcuffed during visits from his mother and his partner. Pierce, who is HIV-positive, was unable to take one of his prescribed HIV medications, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages.

“I can’t verbally speak,” Pierce said in an interview, communicating via videophone. “I had asked for an interpreter and I kept asking for it. They told me to shut up.”

David Holder, Pierce’s partner, said he was treated as something less than a human being. “It’s pretty amazing — a person who talks with their hands can’t use their hands,” Holder said .

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Corrections did not respond Friday to a phone message or an e-mail seeking comment on the lawsuit.


The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of deaf D.C. inmate William Pierce, claiming his rights were violated in prison. (William Pierce)

In early 2012, Pierce was sent to the Central Treatment Facility (CTF), a private facility next to the D.C. jail, which the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) thought could accommodate his needs, the suit alleges. He was released in March.

CTF is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a for-profit company based in Nashville that houses prisoners under a contract with the DOC.

Although the institution offers teletypewriter, or TTY, calls to inmates, Pierce’s lawsuit said this technology was “outmoded” and said that CTF does not provide adequate time for TTY calls, which are more difficult to make than regular phone calls.

Steven Owen, CCA’s director of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail that the firm, which is not named as a defendant in the civil suit, takes “the treatment of the inmates in our care very seriously and work diligently to accommodate any special needs they might have.”

A chaplain from Gallaudet University did offer sign-language interpretation near the end of Pierce’s confinement after a CTF chaplain voiced concern, according to Pierce’s suit.

But Pierce still had no access to an interpreter for medical appointments, educational programming and some substance abuse classes, and he “sat in the classes, uncomprehending, assisted only by occasional notes from the instructor,” the suit said.

The suit called the lack of access a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “It’s in their contract that they’re supposed to comply with these laws,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU’s D.C. office. “It’s a big company with a lot of money. D.C. has to make it clear to them that they are supposed to do what they are contracted to do.”

This is not the first time the DOC has faced a legal challenge for its treatment of a deaf inmate.

Imprisoned in 1999, Joseph Heard, a mute, mentally disabled man with limited sign-language ability, spent 22 months behind bars, even though he had no charges against him.

In 2005, Heard received a settlement of more than $1 million from the District and a private contractor.

“I am suing for money, but I would like equal access as well for the deaf community,” Pierce said. “I don’t want other people to have to be in this situation.”

Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.