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Heeding the Call to Help Deaf Inmates

Receiving a phone call from a client is hardly an unusual event at a law firm. But a phone conversation this past June between V&E senior associate Brandon Tuck and his client, a deaf inmate in Texas state prison, was both extraordinary and cause for celebration.

Like his deaf and hard-of-hearing peers in state prison, the inmate has long been denied the ability to communicate with family and friends in his native language — American Sign Language (ASL) — via a videophone. But after years of litigation and advocacy efforts, this past spring, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) began to install videophones in the two prisons where it incarcerates deaf inmates, allowing the inmates to finally have direct telephone conversations with attorneys, family members, and friends.

“For some of these inmates, this is the first time they have ever seen a videophone because they were incarcerated before the advent of this technology,” Tuck said. “It’s the first time they’ve been able to routinely enjoy the benefits of communicating with their family members and friends that hearing inmates have enjoyed for many years.”

“For some of these inmates, this is the first time they have ever seen a videophone because they were incarcerated before the advent of this technology.”

A long road to videophones

Reaching this milestone marks the culmination of over eight years of litigation and advocacy efforts to allow deaf inmates access to the telecommunication system on par with what hearing inmates receive. It involved the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), V&E, and others who are working to level the playing field for deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates.

For years, even as videophones have become the standard for communication among the deaf, the TDCJ had continued to accommodate deaf prisoners with outdated communication devices called TTYs (Text Telephone, also known as TDDs, or Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf). Often, the equipment was non-functioning.

Deaf prisoners were required to type out their messages on these devices, which converted the messages into signals sent over phone lines. The signals then changed back into letters on a recipient’s TTY, or were read to a hearing person over the phone by an operator. The process is cumbersome. Indeed, one judge considering TDCJ’s use of TTYs instead of videophones compared it to communicating over a telegraph instead of a telephone.

Another downside for deaf inmates is that TTY use requires that the callers be fluent in written English. For many deaf people, English is not their native language. The advent of videophones made it possible for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to have phone conversations in ASL.

“TTYs are obsolete; for most deaf people, they are a very substandard and antiquated way to communicate,” Tuck said.

V&E takes on the case 

In 2010, TCRP filed a lawsuit in State District Court against the TDCJ seeking videophone access for female prisoners as well as qualified interpreters to help deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates better access prison services. TCRP, led by attorneys Scott Medlock and Abby Frank, won, but the State of Texas filed an appeal.

Enter V&E, which worked on the appeals, first in the Court of Appeals and ultimately in the Supreme Court of Texas. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court decided that the state law at issue did not require TDCJ to provide accommodations to inmates with disabilities.

Having exhausted state law remedies, TCRP and V&E began to explore filing a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court under federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of several male inmates seeking the same access to videophones and qualified interpreters.

But before filing a lawsuit, the V&E team followed protocol, which requires prisoners to first seek action by engaging with the prison’s internal grievance process.

Starting in the fall of 2016, Carly Milner, associate Aurra Fellows, and Tuck met extensively with deaf inmates to understand the problems they were confronting.

“We were very present at the prison,” Milner said. “The prison knew we were out there meeting with deaf inmates all the time.”

V&E capitalized on Tuck’s longstanding ties to the Deaf community. Tuck’s brother is deaf, and some other members of his extended family have varying degrees of hearing loss. He is fluent in ASL and has been a certified professional sign language interpreter for over twenty years.

“He has an understanding of the Deaf community,” Milner said. “I think that enabled us to earn the trust of the clients.”

Armed with information, the V&E lawyers sought to communicate via calls and letters with prison officials, including a prison warden, and the General Counsel and the Director of the TDCJ.

V&E was not alone in these advocacy efforts, and there has been a groundswell as the National Association of the Deaf, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other advocates have focused on the plight of deaf prisoners. Several videophone companies, which receive Federal Communications Commission funding to facilitate video relay conversations between deaf and hearing callers, also approached the TDCJ, noting that other prison systems had been upgrading their telecommunications systems.

Advocacy brings life-changing results

This past spring, the State of Texas signed a contract with a videophone service provider and installed videophones in prisons where TDCJ houses its deaf inmates.

Soon after, Tuck received the special call from his client.

“I could see the prison bars to his left, I saw the heads of inmates walking back and forth behind him,” he said. “He was standing there in his prison jumpsuit with a big smile on his face signing, ‘Hey, wow, this works. I can finally get through to you.’”

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.