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News / Clark County News

Clark County Jail settles lawsuit with deaf woman who was denied services

By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter
Published: July 15, 2021, 11:47am

The Clark County Jail will pay a $25,000 settlement to a deaf woman after she was not given services or auxiliary aids — in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — while in custody at the jail for two days in December 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The settlement requires that the jail improve its policies, services and staff training on interacting with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

In a statement Thursday, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said his agency agreed to the Department of Justice’s recommended settlement and that “we intend to consistently demonstrate our values by providing equal access to services for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.”

“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,” Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman said in a news release.

“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,” she continued.

After several prior lawsuits brought by deaf or hard of hearing people, Clark County Jail leadership invested in assistive devices and services to ensure ADA compliance, according to the Department of Justice.

However, when the woman was in custody in 2019, jail staff never offered her those services or devices, the federal agency said. Jail booking staff attempted to communicate with her by writing notes, gesturing or typing on computers, according to the Justice Department.

“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 news release stated.

An investigation into the woman’s complaint concluded that Clark County Jail staff aren’t trained to assess the communication needs of the many hearing impaired people they encounter, according to the Department of Justice.

“The command staff at the jail recognized, as did the Department of Justice, that despite having acquired specialized equipment and implementing procedures to better communicate with the deaf, that this was an instance of a breakdown in those efforts,” Atkins said in his emailed statement.

Within 60 days of the settlement, jail leadership must provide the U.S. Attorney’s Office with a plan to improve communication with deaf or hard of hearing people, according to the news release. The plan must include appointing an effective communication coordinator to ensure ADA compliance and require staff to use a communication assessment tool during booking and throughout a person’s incarceration to ensure their needs are met. Jail staff are also required to log any request for communication assistive devices and how the jail met the requests.

The settlement also requires the jail to improve video access or interpreter services for any interactions with deaf or hard of hearing people in the jail, emergency alerts or communication with legal counsel and family, the Justice Department stated.

Jail staff are also required to modify their use of restraints to allow those who communicate in writing or by using American Sign Language to have their hands free in front of them, the new release states.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office will monitor the Clark County Jail’s compliance with the settlement terms for three years. The jail must report every six months any staff training, the logs of requests and any complaints alleging ADA violations, according to the justice department.