The way Abreham Zemedagegehu tells it, the six weeks he spent in the Arlington County, Va., jail nearly amounted to torture.
A deaf Ethiopian immigrant with limited ability to speak or write English, Zemedagegehu says he missed two or three meals a week because he could not hear the announcement that it was time to eat. He says he went his entire stay without medication for back pain, struggled to communicate with jailers and was unable to make phone calls to friends outside.
In one particularly harrowing encounter, Zemedagegehu alleges, a jail staffer forced a needle into his arm — a tuberculosis test, he would later learn — after he refused to sign a medical consent form that he could not read.
“I felt stuck. I was stuck,” Zemedagegehu said, communicating in sign language through an interpreter. “There was no one to talk to me.”
Zemedagegehu, 41, sued the Arlington sheriff, alleging that he was not provided appropriate accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The Justice Department is investigating the matter. His case is one of many in the D.C. area and across the country that advocates say illustrate a persistent and troubling phenomenon: Jails and prisons are not equipped — or jail and corrections personnel are unwilling — to provide the proper care for inmates who cannot hear.
“I think it’s a nationwide problem,” said Deborah M. Golden, the director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “It’s hard for me to understand why every jail in the country isn’t ready for this issue.”
In recent months, Maryland and Kentucky settled lawsuits alleging that deaf inmates missed prison-wide safety announcements, could not participate in classes behind bars and could not defend themselves at disciplinary proceedings because sign language interpreters were not provided. A federal judge in the District this month ruled that the city’s corrections department will have to pay damages to a deaf former inmate after failing to assess what he would need when he arrived, then badly mismanaging his care.
Similar lawsuits are underway in New York and Michigan. In Oregon, advocacy organizations late last year asked the state prison system to stop using other inmates as interpreters for the deaf.
The problem is not new, and advocates say the victories that inmates have won in their lawsuits often generate new cases. A decade ago, the District reached a more than $1 million settlement with a deaf and mentally disabled man who had been mistakenly held in jail for two years, his desperate scrawling of the word “innocent” on scraps of paper going unanswered by guards and staff. Virginia settled a lawsuit in 2010 brought by a group of deaf inmates, making one of its prisons the first in the country to install a videophone.
But advocates say other jurisdictions are still not employing the new technologies that they should or are not implementing corrective policies that they have adopted.
In Zemedagegehu’s case, Arlington officials have generally defended their handling of deaf inmates, although they declined to discuss details. Susie Doyel, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, wrote in response to a request for comment on this story: “We are still in settlement talks that involve the Justice Department, so we cannot speak to the specific allegations.”
D.C. officials disputed many of the allegations in the recent lawsuit by 46-year-old William Pierce in which a judge ordered the city to pay damages, and Corrections Corporation of America — the contractor that ran the facility at issue — said it did “not agree with the district court’s conclusion that it failed to fulfill its responsibilities in this case.”
The reasons that jails and prisons struggle are many. U.S. prisons have swept in more and more people over the years, and that has included more deaf people, Golden said. According to a recent survey from the National Center for Health Statistics, 0.29 percent of U.S. adults are deaf. Recent and reliable statistics on deaf inmates in prison are difficult to locate, but the Bureau of Justice statistics reported in 2004 that 7 percent of state inmates had a hearing impairment, as did 5 percent of federal inmates.
Deafness is not a disability that is immediately apparent, and jailers often fail to recognize the inadequacy of their attempts to communicate with the deaf by gesturing or writing notes, advocates say. Deaf people, too, are using new technologies to communicate, and prisons and jails are often not keeping up, they say.
Debra Patkin, a staff attorney with the National Association of the Deaf, estimated that only 10 or 20 facilities in the country let deaf inmates regularly use videophones for outside calls, as most still employ TTY devices, which allow users to type messages. Patkin said the devices are decades old, and some people — including Zemedagegehu, who cannot communicate in written English — are unable to use them.
“It’s just not a very efficient or smooth form of communication,” Patkin said through an interpreter with a video relay service.
The District noted that in 2014 — the year after Pierce’s lawsuit was filed — it provided six laptops at its facilities so that deaf inmates could use video remote interpreting services and trained 50 staff members to use the devices. As of Thursday, the city had in custody 11 inmates with hearing loss, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
Maryland, which has seven deaf inmates in its state prison system, agreed to provide videophones as part of its recent settlement. A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the state’s new public safety secretary had made it a goal “to ensure that the deaf and hard of hearing in our custody are afforded the same constitutional rights as all other inmates.”
Virginia — which does not run the Arlington jail — has been something of a model in the region after it settled a lawsuit over its care of deaf inmates in 2010. The state, which has 18 deaf inmates, now uses electronic messaging boards for announcements, provides videophones for outside calls and makes signlanguage interpreters available for classes, disciplinary hearings and medical visits, said corrections operations administrator Elisabeth M. Thornton.
Thornton said the corrections system has yet to experience a major problem with any of the accommodations provided to deaf inmates.
“We’ve talked to a lot of states that have been resistant to the idea, and we get it. We probably raised all those same arguments in court,” she said. “Part of that is we’re in a risk-averse business, so when you change how we do business, we kind of freak out a little bit. But honestly, the videophones have created no more trouble than a regular phone with a hearing offender.”
Zemedagegehu was taken into custody in 2014 at Reagan National Airport on allegations that he stole an iPad. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property in exchange for a sentence of time served. The case, though, was fraught from the outset.
Zemedagegehu, who is homeless, said he did not understand why he was arrested and did not fully understand his plea. His alleged victim — another deaf, homeless man with whom he had had a dispute — eventually withdrew the allegation that Zemedagegehu had taken his iPad, although lawyers have so far not succeeded in undoing Zemedagegehu’s conviction.
Zemedagegehu is suing the Arlington sheriff with the help of lawyer Larry E. Tanenbaum and the firm Akin Gump, which is handling the matter pro bono, Tanenbaum said. Speaking through an interpreter provided by the firm, Zemedagegehu recently said he feared that his experience in the Arlington jail was all too common, and “there’s no excuse anymore.” He said he spent most of his time sleeping on the floor, crying and feeling “ignored.”
Still jobless and homeless, Zemedagegehu said he hoped one day to travel the country advocating for deaf people’s rights.
“I want change for everyone,” he said, “but I really doubt it will happen.”