Judge Orders Relief for Deaf California Prisoners

     (CN) - California must start providing deaf prisoners in solitary confinement with sign-language interpreters, a federal judge ruled, noting inmates there are 33 percent more likely to kill themselves.
     The state's obligations stem from a series of orders between 1996 and 2002 in which the Northern District of California found that that disabled prisoners were enduring violations of the American with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
     John Armstrong is the lead plaintiff in the case and the namesake of the 2001 Armstrong Remedial Plan, which sets forth the policies California must adopt to comply with its obligations to disabled prisoners under federal law.
     Over the years, however, the court has repeatedly chided the state for inadequate staffing of sign-language interpreters, in violation of the remedial plan.
     U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken insisted Tuesday that the state must quickly put the sign-language interpreters (SLIs) in place.
     The inmates had complained about the consistent dearth of SLIs when psychiatric technicians take their rounds for patients housed in solitary, known as administrative segregation housing units. SLIs are also absent during education and vocational programs at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility.
     Wilken said there is "clear" and "convincing" evidence that the corrections department has not complied with the court-ordered plan and is still in violation of the ADA.
     Sign language interpreters must be present in the solitary unit when technicians evaluate the mental health status of inmates, according to the ruling.
     Wilken noted that inmates in segregated housing accounted for 34 percent of all suicides in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Prisoners in solitary are also 33 percent more likely than those in the general prison population to commit suicide, according to the ruling.
     The judge rejected the state's objection that such statistics are irrelevant since they do are not specific to deaf prisoners in segregated housing units.
     "These statistics include those prisoners; they show an increased risk to all inmates in segregated housing units, not only to those who are not deaf," Wilken wrote. "Plaintiffs also have offered declarations from deaf prisoners who have been in administrative segregation, who felt depressed and who wanted or attempted to hurt themselves. They said that they wanted to tell the mental health staff about their feelings but could not communicate with them. To the extent that Defendants argue that deaf prisoners were not harmed because none have actually succeeded at committing suicide since this policy was implemented, the court need not wait until a death to require compliance with its orders. The court already found in the 2007 order that Defendants had consistently and systematically denied sign language interpreters to deaf prisoners, including to suicidal prisoners, causing them significant harm."
     The latest records also show that there was no SLI present for at least 25 percent of all classes that included deaf inmates between November 1, 2012 and February 15, 2013.
     Wilken conceded that "there may be instances in which an SLI is unavailable," but that "failing to provide an interpreter in education and vocational classes 25 percent of the time, without addressing the problem, for years before plaintiffs filed a motion for contempt, simply does not constitute making a reasonable effort to comply with the court's prior orders."
     The judge nevertheless refused to hold the state in contempt for its failures with regard to both prisoners in solitary and prisoners in vocational or educational classes.
     As to the first issue, "there appears to have been a good faith misunderstanding about whether these mental health encounters fell within the terms of the ARP [Armstrong remedial plan] and the court's prior orders," Wilken said.
     California furthermore has also been making an effort to use more SLIs during education and vocational training programs, according to the ruling.
     "Because defendants have demonstrated that they are presently making substantial efforts to reach compliance with the court's orders and the ADA requirements by voluntarily increasing both the contract and civil services positions for qualified SLIs ... the court finds that no civil contempt sanctions are needed at the present time to coerce their compliance," the decision states.
     Wilken nevertheless reminded the state that it can still find itself in hot water.
     "This denial is without prejudice to renewal if defendants fail to provide proper services in the future," she said.