ACLU complaint asks DOJ to investigate treatment of deaf inmates at detention center

By: - January 17, 2022 5:00 am

The detention center in 2020. (Photo: Daniel Clark)

The ACLU of Nevada is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the treatment of deaf inmates at the Clark County Detention Center.

In a complaint filed earlier this month with the Civil Rights Division, Christopher Peterson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, said the facility has violated the American Disability Act by failing to provide qualified interpreters to deaf people being booked in the jail.

The problems, he said, persist for inmates who aren’t given interpreters during medical visits, mental health evaluations and programming or classes provided by CCDC. 

“When you talk about the experience of being a deaf person in that environment, basically it’s like being on a deserted island,” Peterson said.  “Your ability to communicate with the people around you is taken away from you.”

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was unable to comment at the time of publication. 

The ACLU is representing two deaf clients, one who is currently incarcerated. 

Peterson said one client has filed multiple grievances and complaints about the lack or resources and services, but nothing has changed. 

“One of our clients made multiple, documented requests for an interpreter, all of which were denied,” the complaint says. “In his case, this denial resulted in him being misdiagnosed by CCDC psychiatric staff.” 

The complaint also said precautions and presentations about Covid-19 and how inmates could protect themselves were “given orally without any visual aids, written explanations and never with an interpreter.”

Rather than just look at the issues faced by their clients, Peterson told the DOJ that the ACLU has good reason to believe that the problems at CCDC are “systemic and pervasive,” which is why they called for an investigation. 

Even if CCDC fixed specific issues their clients referenced, he worried what would happen to those who are arrested and booked in the future. 

“There are going to be people coming in over and over again who are not there for an extended period of time,” Peterson said. “They come in on traffic warrants, while they still exist, or for minor infractions. They come in for three or four day or on a weekend until they get in front of a judge and it’s one of those things a judge looks at (the case) and says, ‘you did your time, we’ll give you credit for time served’ and you’re out. We want to make sure this gets fixed for them. It’s not just about the folks we are currently representing or the folks who had the awareness to contact about the problem.”

The complaint criticizes the jail’s use of TTY, a teletypewriter that allows those who are deaf to communicate. 

Peterson said even if the devices weren’t out of date, “our understanding is there are only a few devices available.” 

“They are not available in every unit,” he said. “If a person is deaf, what they have to do is request the TTY device be brought to them. That requires that person be aware the device is available. Our clients were unaware when they came to the facility and it took two weeks before someone finally communicated that to them.”

He added there was also a delay when people who requested TTY received the device.

A person relying on the device can use it during phone calls in order to communicate with family members and friends. Another issue, he noted, is phone calls are typically only 15 minutes so deaf inmates are deprived of time because part of the call is dedicated to translation. 

In the complaint, the ACLU also noted that CCDC alarms and auditory signals, such as three beeps to indicate when inmates could move freely in their unit or use phones to contact friends and family, don’t include tactile or visual cues for deaf inmates. 

“Though it has offered no other way for our clients to communicate with staff or other inmates, CCDC has required our clients to pay for their own pen and paper during their stay at the facility,” the complaint says. “These fundamental failures expose CCDC’s complete disregard for deaf inmates, such as our clients, in its care. They also violate the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Prior to filing the complaint, Peterson said the ACLU filed records requests to see how CCDC trains staff around the treatment of deaf inmates. 

“We get these records back and they understand they have to give qualified interpreters,” he said. “They understand they have to provide services. They may not be up to date on the video phone aspects, but they understand but they just aren’t doing it.”

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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