Deaf prisoner from the District files rights violation lawsuit

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:28 PM

A federal inmate from the District who is deaf has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, saying that the agency has jeopardized his safety and violated his rights by failing to provide him with communications aids that he needs.

David Bryant, who is serving a 99-year sentence for rape, says he was punished by staff for ignoring instructions that he couldn't hear and that he was attacked by other inmates when he tried to activate the closed-captioning function on a communal television.

Bryant, 46, cannot understand spoken conversation and communicates through American Sign Language, according to his lawsuit, which was filed Friday.

But since he began serving his current prison term in 2005, he has not had regular access to an interpreter or other vital aids, he says in his suit. That has made it difficult for Bryant to provide accurate information during medical evaluations or to participate in education or treatment programs.

"He is held in what amounts to communication isolation," said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisoners' Project, which helped draft the lawsuit that seeks access to an interpreter to help him communicate, use of a vibrating alarm to alert him to important warnings or announcements, safe access to a television with closed-captioning and other accommodations. "He can't communicate with anyone, and he's cut off in a way that hearing prisoners, even in the most secure facilities, aren't."

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said Monday that the agency would not comment on a pending lawsuit. Burke said that each prison in the federal system is responsible for accommodating "whatever need an inmate presents based on his disability." Burke said he did not have a reliable count of how many of the bureau's approximately 210,000 inmates are hearing-impaired.

Since the District closed its prison in Lorton a decade ago, the Bureau of Prisons has been responsible for housing almost all inmates convicted in D.C. Superior Court and sentenced to terms longer than a year.

After he pleaded guilty in 2005 to breaking into a District woman's home and raping her after she tried to flee, Bryant began his sentence at a federal prison in West Virginia. He was transferred to a federal prison in Florida and then to his current facility, U.S. Penitentiary Victorville in Adelanto, Calif., where he has been since March 2010.

At each prison, Bryant says in his lawsuit, he has sought accommodations. And if the prison could not provide it, Bryant has asked to be transferred to a facility better suited to deaf inmates.

Burke, the prisons spokesman, said the agency does not have any prisons with special programs for the deaf.

In one request, filed in November 2008 with the assistance of a lawyer, Bryant said, "I cannot hear the alarm in my cell always. I want a strobe and/or vibrating alarm in my cell."

When he was at the federal prison in Florida, more basic problems arose, the lawsuit alleges. Initially, the facility, Coleman I , did not have a telecommunication device for the deaf, so Bryant could not communicate with his attorneys or his family, the lawsuit alleges. And the facility did not readily provide replacement batteries for Bryant's hearing aid, which helps him detect loud sounds around him, the lawsuit states.

In March, with his complaints in Florida pending, Bryant was moved to Victorville, a transfer that he says was retaliatory. Since turning in his hearing aids in May because they were not working properly, Bryant has not received replacements, his lawsuit alleges.

BOP officials have rejected his allegations, according to the lawsuit.

"[O]ur review reveals the institution is meeting your needs," Regional Director Robert E. McFadden wrote in June in response to Bryant, according to the lawsuit.

In the fall, the D.C. Prisoners' Project reached a settlement with the Virginia Department of Corrections to improve services for the state's deaf inmates, who are primarily housed at the Powhatan Correctional Center about 25 miles west of Richmond.

Over the past year, the D.C. Department of Corrections has housed 10 prisoners with hearing impairments awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year, spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said. Such inmates are housed in special units depending on the severity of their condition and provided with appropriate aids and services, Lane said.

In Maryland, the state prison system houses 53 inmates who are hearing impaired, spokesman Mark A. Vernarelli said. The three women are housed at the women's prison in Jessup, and the majority of men from the central part of the state are held at another prison in Jessup, where interpreters are on site daily to assist the inmates, Vernarelli said.

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