A deaf Ethiopian immigrant who described his time in an Arlington jail as akin to torture has settled a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office for $250,000.
Abreham Zemedagegehu spent six weeks in Arlington’s custody in 2014, during which he said he missed meals, lacked necessary medication and could not make phone calls. Unable to read or write in English, he told reporters through an interpreter last year, he had no way of speaking to his jailers and felt isolated.
One of the worst moments of his captivity, Zemedagegehu said, came when he refused to sign medical papers that he did not understand. In response, a jail staffer jabbed him in the arm with a needle. Only later did he learn that the papers were a medical release form and that he had been given a tuberculosis test.
Zemedagegehu, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen, alleged in his suit that he was not provided appropriate accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. He argued that the jail should have provided the services of a sign-language interpreter, hearing aids and a telecommunications device that would have allowed him to speak to his attorney and others outside the jail. He knows Ethiopian Sign Language and American Sign Language.
He told the New York Times in 2013 that he had lost his job and become homeless after suffering a back injury while moving packages for FedEx.
His allegations prompted an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which settled the case. The settlement did not identify Zemedagegehu by name, but he had been named in previous court documents.
The settlement requires the sheriff’s office to appoint a coordinator to oversee compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, train staff on the law’s requirements and ensure that the devices and services Zemedagegehu was denied are available in the jail.
Sheriff Beth Arthur said in a statement that she has taken steps to improve disability services at the jail. Technology has been upgraded, and all staff and contractors have received ADA training that will now be administered annually.
“The Arlington County Sheriff’s Office strives to treat all individuals committed to our detention facility with dignity and respect,” Arthur said.
Jon Goodrich, of the law firm Akin Gump, which handled the case pro bono, said in an email that Zemedagegehu was “thrilled with the result.” He added that “Abreham continues to keep this ordeal in his rear view mirror, and wishes not to dwell on the trauma that he endured.”
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.
But Zemedagegehu said he did not understand why he was arrested until he went to court and that he pleaded guilty only to get out of jail. His alleged victim — another deaf, homeless man who was sleeping at the airport — eventually withdrew the allegation, saying he had made a mistake and that the missing iPad had been found.
Zemedagegehu’s attorneys said they are still seeking to have the conviction overturned.