Deaf and Hard of Hearing People in Colorado Prisons Will Get Interpreters, Other Effective Communication and Accommodations

Disability Law Colorado Settles Lawsuit Against Colorado Department of Corrections

Disability Law Colorado (DLC) and the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) have reached a settlement in a lawsuit DLC brought on behalf of Deaf and hard of hearing people incarcerated in CDOC’s custody.  DLC is represented by student attorneys and their professors at the Civil Rights Clinic (CRC) at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, as well as attorneys from the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) and the Denver law firm of Fox & Robertson.

The lawsuit alleged that CDOC was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide sign language interpreters for medical appointments, classes, and other significant interactions; failing to provide equal access to notifications and alarms; and failing to provide and maintain hearing aids.

In the settlement, CDOC commits to ensure that Deaf incarcerated people have access to sign language interpreters for key interactions such as intake and orientation; medical appointments; educational, vocational, and religious programs; and preparation for parole and release. CDOC will provide captioned telephones for hard of hearing incarcerated people, and continue to provide – per an earlier settlement with CREEC – videophones for those who are Deaf. CDOC will also ensure that hard of hearing incarcerated people are evaluated by an audiologist and provided hearing aids if necessary; those with hearing aids will receive prompt repairs and replacement batteries. 

The settlement requires CDOC to provide text-based notifications for incarcerated people who cannot hear announcements over the public address system, and to provide a visual or tactile alarm system to ensure that Deaf and hard of hearing incarcerated people are not left behind in emergencies.  

The lawsuit was the result of a two-year investigation by student attorneys at the CRC, who reviewed thousands of pages of documents and conducted hundreds of interviews. The investigation revealed systemic discrimination against Deaf and hard of hearing people and led to the filing of the federal court complaint in March of 2021.

Later that year, the parties began to discuss settlement, culminating in the agreement announced today.

“This settlement will finally ensure that Deaf and hard of hearing people are treated equally in Colorado’s prisons – that, like others, they can understand and communicate with medical personnel, succeed in educational and vocational programs, be safe in emergencies, and prepare for parole and release,” said Carrie Griffin Basas, DLC’s Executive Director. “We commend the CDOC for working with us improve the conditions for Deaf and hard of hearing incarcerated people.”

“For years, Deaf and hard of hearing people incarcerated by CDOC fought for their rights. We are grateful for their tenacity and courage. This settlement would not have been possible without their hard work and that of the multiple generations of Civil Rights Clinic student attorneys who fought alongside them,” added Professor Laura Rovner, Director of the Civil Rights Clinic. “We thank them, DLC, and our co-counsel for helping to bring about these critically important reforms.”

“We are excited for this important settlement and fortunate to have worked with DLC and d/Deaf and hard of hearing incarcerated people in this lawsuit,” said Pilar Gonzalez Morales, Director of the Accessibility Project at CREEC. “We commend the work of all the people held by CDOC who supported and helped us bring this lawsuit, as well as the work of our co-counsel partners.”

“We are grateful for DLC’s leadership in this important case, and for the courage of the individual incarcerated people who worked with us to document discrimination and craft the settlement,” said Amy Robertson, with the law firm of Fox & Robertson. We look forward to working with the CDOC to implement this ground-breaking settlement.”

National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, Blind Prisoners Resolve Suit Against CDOC.

Colorado Department of Corrections will Correct Systemic Failures that Threatened Privacy and Safety of Blind Incarcerated People.

Icon showing blind person using cane, laptop, and headphones, all behind prison bars.

Brian Christopher Mackes and Adrian Chávez, two blind men in the custody of the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC), and the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado have settled the lawsuit they brought against CDOC last year. The suit alleged that CDOC denied blind prisoners access to the aids and services needed to participate in educational programming, work assignments, and recreation. According to the complaint, CDOC also failed to provide blind prisoners with effective communication of the materials and information that the Department provides prisoners in written form, such as handbooks, regulations, and grievance forms. This conduct forced blind prisoners to rely on other inmates to help them with various tasks, such as reading mail, and to provide them with information, threatening their privacy and safety.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), the Denver law firm of Fox & Robertson, and the Baltimore law firm of Brown Goldstein & Levy.

The settlement requires that each blind prisoner have access to a laptop loaded with screen reader software, which reads digital material aloud, as well as a typing tutorial program, an ebook reader, and other assistive technology. These devices will also contain accessible-format versions of key prison documents. Blind prisoners will also have access to a scanner and printer to which the laptops can be connected so that they can read mail and other printed documents. All job and education information will be made accessible, and blind prisoners cannot be denied access to any such opportunity based on disability.

“Blind prisoners do not seek, and this settlement does not grant, special treatment,” said Jessica Beecham, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. “Blind incarcerated people will now receive the accommodations they need, and to which they are legally entitled, in order to fully and equally participate in the programs and opportunities available to other members of the incarcerated population. We commend the Colorado Department of Corrections for reaching this agreement, and hope that other corrections systems throughout our nation will take note of the necessary and humane reforms taking place in Colorado. We are grateful for the leadership of our national organization in coordinating the expertise, resources, and talent to make these changes a reality.”

“We recognize and appreciate the courage of the individual plaintiffs, Brian Mackes and Adrian Chávez, who documented the discrimination they faced and worked with us and with the Department to craft this ground-breaking settlement,” said Amy Robertson, an attorney with Denver’s Fox & Robertson who represented the NFB of Colorado and the individual plaintiffs. “We look forward to working with the CDOC to ensure access and privacy for blind people in CDOC custody.”

###

About the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado

The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, an affiliate of the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans,  is a nonprofit made up of blind people of all ages and their families and friends. NFB-CO is dedicated to ensuring that blind Coloradoans have full and equal access to all the services, programs, and activities of the State. NFB-CO serves as an advocate for change when equal treatment is denied. https://www.nfbco.org/.

This is what a technicality looks like.

Icon showing magnifying glass on top of open book.

Defendant:  does a thing that violates a civil rights law.

Plaintiff: files suit under said civil rights law.

Court: 

  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t show that it will definitely do the thing again: no standing to ask for an order to make sure Defendant does not do the thing again.
  • Defendant did the thing but then Defendant stopped doing the thing, at least for now, after you sued:  your case is moot.
  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t show that your incarcerated [maybe disabled; maybe illiterate] client filed a Step 1 grievance within 30 days, then filed a Step 2 grievance within five days of receiving the response to the Step 1 grievance, and then filed a Step 3 grievance within five days of receiving the response to the Step 2 grievance:  case dismissed. 
  • Defendant did the thing and your incarcerated [maybe disabled; maybe illiterate] client filed all the grievances and responses on time but one step of the grievance used different language from another step of the grievance: case dismissed.   
  • Defendant did the thing and your incarcerated [maybe disabled; maybe illiterate] client filed all the grievances and responses on time and used all the right language but the grievance was similar to an earlier grievance in which they were unable to follow all the rules and deadlines: case dismissed.   
  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t show that the law against the [obviously illegal] thing was well-established:  Defendant’s minions are immune from suit.
  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t prove that Defendant’s policy required doing the thing: Defendant city/county agency is not liable. 
  • Defendant did the thing but Defendant is the state, so the 11th Amendment, which doesn’t actually say anything about this situation, makes the State immune from suit: no damages.
  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t show that Defendant intended to do the thing:  no damages. 
  • Defendant did the thing but you can’t show physical or financial harm from the thing: no damages.