Settlement will lead to changes for deaf prison inmates – Minnesota Lawyer

Inmates sit at phone stations on right side of hallway. Some are in the hallway, lined by cells on left side.

by Dan Heilman

Thanks to a recently announced settlement, starting on July 1 Minnesota prison inmates with hearing loss will get the same critical messaging that hearing prisoners get over the facilities’ public address systems.

That’s part of a settlement agreement between Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center and the state Department of Corrections (DOC). The Law Center represented two inmates of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, one deaf and one hard of hearing, who were missing critical announcements they needed for everyday living and for their long-term health needs.

One of the men, Jamie Richardson, has been at Stillwater since 2002 as part of a life sentence. DOC had provided him some accessibility accommodations but had turned down requests for other accommodations. As a result, he was denied access to oral announcements, telephone service and the opportunity to learn American Sign Language.

The DOC’s oral announcements — about such things as lunch, classes, medication, lockdown and exercise — are essential to everyday functioning at Stillwater, argued Disability Law Center attorney Sonja Dunnwald Peterson. Denying him access to those announcements was a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, she said.

According to Peterson, the prison system dictates when inmates line up at the front of their cells to be counted, eat and get medication. Inmates can be disciplined if they miss calls to do so. It can also be dangerous for an inmate to be outside his cell during lockdown, a jam he could find himself in if he doesn’t hear the lockdown announcement.

Richardson also alleged that when he reported the problems, he was threatened by a prison program director, who intimated that he was unlikely to get prison jobs he wanted if he continued to complain.

“[Richarson] contacted us for the simple reason that he wasn’t getting these announcements, and he needed to be able to hear them,” said Peterson. “The two men had separate cases, but the circumstances were similar.”

The other inmate, Timothy Allen Lake, has been deaf since birth. The Stillwater prison provided him with some accessibility accommodations for his disability, but Lake repeatedly requested additional accommodations, similar to those requested by Richardson, that went unfilled.

Another problem was that accommodations for deaf inmates were often faulty or ill-maintained — when they were used at all.

Before the suit was filed, the DOC, under the urging of Legal Aid, provided pagers to help corrections staff communicate with prisoners such as Richardson, but that proved insufficient when it came to light that staff weren’t using the pagers. That revelation was one of the final factors that triggered the lawsuit.

Starting in 2018, DOC provided videophones for deaf inmates at Stillwater to make telephone calls. But there were only a few such phones, and they often failed. Likewise, available TTY devices often produced garbled, illegible text.

The Disability Law Center was part of a previous lawsuit, in 2018, that addressed similar circumstances. The DOC, attorneys said in regard to Richardson and Lake, failed to maintain the TTY it provides in “operable working condition” as required by ADA regulations and the terms of a settlement reached in the previous suit.

The settlement in these two cases was held up by lockdowns taking place during the COVID pandemic, as well as the customary back-and-forth between parties.

“I heard from the defense attorney in this, who is former military, that the DOC operates in kind of a military way,” said Peterson. “It takes a long time for things to change. That was frustrating for us because we thought we had some solutions on this matter back in 2020 or so. But the problems were still there.”

The settlement agreement on behalf of Richardson and Lake, reached after rounds of mediation, requires the DOC to issue a new policy stating that pages must be made immediately after the P.A. announcement, except in the case of an emergency. It also requires prison administrators to circulate a memo to the Stillwater correction officers about the policy, and to detail protocols for training staff, investigating complaints and taking disciplinary action in case staff fails to follow the new policies.

The Minnesota DOC will also pay Legal Aid $66,000 in attorney fees.

“At least now we have a change that requires the correctional officers to immediately page deaf inmates following an announcement.” said Peterson.