A federal judge has ruled that the D.C. Department of Corrections will have to pay damages to a deaf former inmate because officials failed to assess what accommodations he would need when he arrived at a corrections facility and because they mismanaged his care.
In a 60-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson delivered a stinging rebuke to the department for its treatment of 46-year-old William Pierce, a deaf former inmate who alleged that he was not given appropriate accommodations during his incarceration in 2012.
In the opinion made public Thursday, Jackson wrote that even though the department had policies in place to assist deaf inmates, officials at the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility “effectively sat on their hands” when it came to Pierce.
“This Court easily concludes that the District’s willful blindness regarding Pierce’s need for accommodation and its half-hearted attempt to provide Pierce with a random assortment of auxiliary aids — and only after he specifically requested them — fell far short of what the law requires,” Jackson wrote.
Jurors will determine the amount of compensation Pierce deserves, said James Rocap, a lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson who represented Pierce in the case.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections declined to comment for this article, saying that the matter was “still in litigation.” Steven Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the prison under contract, said that the company “does not agree with the district court’s conclusion” and that it “is currently evaluating several options to challenge the district court’s order.”
“CCA takes very seriously its responsibility to accommodate any individual in its care who has special needs, and we work hard to comply with all laws designed to accommodate those with disabilities,” Owen said.
The ruling comes as Justice Department officials are investigating a similar matter at the Arlington County detention center, and Rocap said he hopes it will serve as a “wake-up call” for those in the District.
According to information in Jackson’s decision, Pierce was arrested in 2012 on a charge of simple assault after a domestic dispute. He pleaded guilty and received a 60-day sentence.
Pierce alleged that his weeks behind bars were harrowing, as he was not given a qualified sign-language interpreter for classes and medical appointments and was provided only limited access to a device that allowed him to make outside calls. He alleged that after he was shoved by a fellow inmate, prison officials put him in solitary confinement — something he consented to only because he did not understand a form he was signing.
The department disputed those assertions, arguing that Pierce was given accommodations when he asked for them and that he was better able to communicate than he acknowledged.
Jackson sided almost entirely with Pierce, although she wrote that her decision could be predicated entirely on one fact: When Pierce first arrived at the prison, officials did not proactively assess what accommodations he would need. She wrote that prison officials’ contention that they need not do so — instead only responding to disabled inmates’ specific requests — was “truly baffling as a matter of law and logic.”
Pierce, a District resident, said in a statement issued through the American Civil Liberties Union that he was “pleased” with the judge’s decision but that the problems he encountered persist for deaf inmates.