A deaf man able to communicate only with sign language has alleged in a federal lawsuit that he was held for six weeks in the Arlington County jail last year after jailers failed to provide an interpreter or allow him to call attorneys or a friend by videophone.
The suit alleges that Abreham Zemedagegehu was held for more than 24 hours before he knew why he had been arrested. He was administered a tuberculosis shot without his consent, often went hungry because he couldn’t hear alerts for mealtime and was unable to call friends or an attorney because of inadequate technology in the jail — all of which violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lawsuit said.
“The lack of access to communication during the booking process exacerbated the feelings of frustration, humiliation, anger, anxiety, isolation, confusion, and loss of dignity that Mr. Zemedagegehu otherwise would have experienced as a result of his arrest and detention,” said the lawsuit, which was first reported Thursday by the Associated Press.
“This comes down to recognizing basic human decency,” said Caroline E. Jackson, an attorney at the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center who is part of a team representing Zemedagegehu. “Our client was jailed for six weeks with basically nobody to communicate with. It was hell for him.”
Maj. Susie Doyel, director of administration for the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department, said that she could not respond to the charges in the case itself. But the jail employs a number of deputies certified in American Sign Language and has other interpreters on call, she said. In her 10 years in the department, Doyel said, no deaf person has accused the jail of failing to provide such services.
“If a person is deaf, it certainly creates a difficult situation,” she said, especially if the person struggles to read or write English, as is the case with Zemedagegehu. “It is our job to communicate with people who are brought into our facility.”
Zemedagegehu, 42, a homeless Ethiopian American, had gone to Reagan National Airport the night of Feb. 2, 2014, to find a warm place to sleep. He was quickly arrested by officers of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who were looking for a suspect in the theft of an iPad.
Zemedagegehu, who has limited English proficiency in writing, said in the lawsuit that he told the airport police by gestures and in writing that he didn’t understand them and needed an American Sign Language interpreter. The suit says they denied his request and took him to Arlington’s jail.
His attorneys said he didn’t understand the booking procedure, which is in English by video screen. He was taken for medical screening, but he refused to sign a consent form because he couldn’t understand it. Throughout the process, his suit says, Zemedagegehu asked by gestures and in simple written form for an American Sign Language interpreter but was repeatedly denied.
He was unable to communicate that he had back problems that required prescription medication. An employee, he said, “forced a needle into his arm,” which later caused a bad reaction, according to the suit.
A second medical procedure was required, and again Zemedagegehu did not understand what was going on, according to the suit. In response to the lawsuit, the sheriff’s office said the procedure was an X-ray.
The suit alleged that the inmate was then placed in a cell alone and missed many meals because he couldn’t hear the alerts for mealtime and no one explained that he had to push a button to open his cell door quickly after the alerts sounded, the suit said.
“It had to be obvious to people at the jail that my client was hurting,” said Larry Tanenbaum, an attorney with Akin Gump, which is also representing Zemedagegehu. “The fact that nobody did anything, that this was tolerated, is just appalling.”
When he sought to call a friend, Zemedagegehu said, the jail first offered a basic telephone, then provided a TTY device, which is rarely used in the deaf community and which types out English text that Zemedagegehu doesn’t understand. He needed access to a videophone or video relay service that is more common and modern, he said, but the jail did not provide one.
Doyel, of the sheriff’s office, said the jail’s TTY device is commonly used without difficulty. She also said a deputy, who is assigned to 40 to 60 inmates at a time, watches for problems.
Six weeks after he was jailed, Zemedagegehu accepted a deal and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of receiving stolen property in exchange for time served. He was released March 16, 2014.
The public defender’s office has said that, after the plea was accepted, it learned that the owner of the stolen iPad had told prosecutors that the electronic device had been found.
Theo Stamos, Arlington’s commonwealth attorney, disputed that account. One of her prosecutors did tell the public defender that the iPad had been found, she said, but the device’s recovery was not evidence that it had never been stolen.
Matt Foley, Arlington’s chief public defender, said his office tried to reopen the case and have the misdemeanor charge dismissed, but the judge ruled the motion was too late.
Zemedagegehu remains homeless and continues to communicate with his attorneys by videophone or American Sign Language interpreter.
He is seeking unspecified damages in the suit.