Seattle – The Clark County Jail in Vancouver, Washington and the U.S. Department of Justice today reached a settlement agreement to ensure equal access to services at the jail for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. The investigation and settlement resulted from the complaint of a Clark County woman who is deaf and was denied auxiliary aids or services while incarcerated at the jail for two days. The settlement agreement calls for substantial updates to the policies and procedures at the jail. The complainant will be paid $25,000 by the Clark County Jail.
“When a person with communication disabilities has their liberty restrained by incarceration, the ability to effectively communicate is of critical importance. They must be able to provide and receive information about medical care, legal rights, and their basic human needs,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman. “This settlement will help ensure that every person who is deaf or hard of hearing has the ability to effectively communicate and have equal access to services in their encounter with the Clark County corrections system.”
Following earlier lawsuits regarding services for persons who are deaf and hard of hearing, the Clark County Jail obtained assistive devices and services to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Nevertheless, over the two days that the complainant, who is deaf, was in custody, the jail failed to provide any of those devices or other interpreter services to the complainant. Instead, during the complainant’s booking into CCJ on December 10, 2019, jail booking staff attempted to communicate using written notes, gestures, and typing on a computer screen. These less effective forms of communication were used during such critical information gathering as taking medical history and informing complainant about her basic rights, rules, and resources at the jail. The assistive devices that were purchased after prior lawsuits were never offered or provided.
The investigation also determined that jail staff are not trained in how to assess an inmate’s communication needs, despite the fact that the jail deals with many detainees who have hearing impairments. Since 2014 there have been multiple lawsuits against the Clark County Jail alleging discrimination against detainees with hearing impairments.
Under the terms of the settlement, within 60 days the jail will provide the U.S. Attorney’s Office with policies to improve effective communication with persons who are deaf and hard of hearing. Such policies will include the appointment of an Effective Communication Coordinator (ECC) who will be responsible for ensuring that the jail meets the requirements of the ADA. The policies will also require jail staff to use a communications assessment tool at the time of booking to ensure an inmate’s needs are met and require staff to take steps to ensure that inmate communication needs are reassessed throughout their incarceration. Under the terms of the settlement, the jail will log all requests for communication assistive devices and how the jail met those requests.
The settlement calls for the Clark County Jail to provide interpreter services in person or via video link for a variety of important interactions including but not limited to: medical appointments; educational classes; classification reviews; and religious services. The jail will also ensure that any emergency alerts at the facility are communicated in an effective visual form for inmates who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Additionally, the jail will prominently display information on assistive services for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. The jail will provide a video orientation with closed captioning for deaf and hard of hearing inmates. Finally, the jail will ensure inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing have access to videophones to communicate with legal counsel or family members.
The settlement also calls for the jail to modify its restraint and handcuffing policy so that inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing can communicate using American Sign Language or in writing by having their hands in front of their bodies, when safety permits.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office will monitor the Clark County Jail’s compliance with the settlement for the next three years. The jail will report to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on training of jail staff, the logs regarding request and use of assistive services and any complaints regarding compliance with the ADA. The reports are due every six months.
The matter is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Christina Fogg. Ms. Fogg serves as the Civil Rights Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Washington. Learn more about our civil rights program here.