A 45-year-old woman being held at the state prison in Framingham has degenerative hearing loss and needs two hearing aids. But when she arrived to begin her sentence eight years ago with two fully functioning devices, she was forced to turn them in because they were not issued by a licensed health contractor.
According to a civil lawsuit filed on her behalf last week, prison officials gave her one state-approved device, but it broke shortly thereafter.
Other plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the state Department of Correction include a legally deaf man who was twice left behind in his unit at the Massachusetts Treatment Center during a fire alarm because he could not hear it, and hearing-impaired inmates who have been disciplined for not obeying prison announcements they could not hear.
The lawsuit was filed in US District Court in Worcester last week by prisoners’ rights advocates who allege the state Department of Correction discriminates against deaf and blind prisoners.
“Deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in the [Department of Correction] are essentially living in a prison within a prison,” said Elizabeth Matos, a staff attorney with Prisoners Legal Services, a corrections reform group in Massachusetts.
The lawsuit also names Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Health Care, the department’s medical contractor. Matos said staff from both agencies “have repeatedly ignored the requests of deaf and hard of hearing individuals for even the most basic accommodations necessary to protect themselves within an often dangerous environment and to access the same programs and services offered to hearing prisoners.”
A spokesman said the state Department of Correction does not comment on pending litigation and would not comment on the lawsuit. A representative from Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Health Care deferred to the state.
The 49-page lawsuit alleges that the state follows policies and procedures that systemically deprive deaf and blind prisoners of services and programs that other inmates would be entitled to, such as access to medical care, mental health counselors, and educational and religious programs. The department, the lawsuit alleges, also deprives inmates of the ability to communicate and interact with loved ones.
For instance, the department uses outdated telecommunication devices for deaf and blind prisoners who try to call loved ones, even when newer technology, such as video devices, is available, easier to use, and cheaper for inmates and their families. And, the suit alleges, the outdated telecommunication devices are often not even available.
The department, according to the complaint, also fails to provide prisoners with functioning hearing aids or sign language interpreters, restricting their ability to take part in educational, vocational, or rehabilitation programs. Many of the inmates cannot communicate with medical providers, the suit alleges. According to the complaint, one inmate had a seizure and could not communicate with a medical provider. The inmate was then prescribed medication, but staff “did not tell him what it was or what it was meant to treat.”
In addition, the suit says, when announcements are made, some inmates have difficulty hearing them but are still disciplined if they do not comply. And hearing aids provided by the prisons are often not functional, the suit contends. The female prisoner at Framingham had one with a hole in it.
“She was forced to make do by covering the hole with scotch tape to make her aid minimally functional,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges that the department’s policies not only discriminate against certain inmates but put them in danger.
“When [plaintiffs’] hearing devices are not functioning properly, their ability to communicate and understand their environment is seriously compromised,” the lawsuit states. “They are forced to observe the clock and other prisoners closely, taking their cues from them to ensure they are in the right place at the right time. This increases the danger that they face of exploitation and verbal and physical abuse from other prisoners.”
The lawsuit alleges that the agencies not only failed to provide basic, equal services but that they failed to act on requests over the last several years to address inmates’ concerns, as other states have.
Deborah Golden, an attorney with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, part of the team of prisoners’ right advocates, said similar calls for reform were heard in states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky, but not in Massachusetts.
“We were disappointed to discover that Massachusetts is so backward,” Golden said. “It should not take a lawsuit to ensure that men and women in Massachusetts are guaranteed their rights to health, safety, and effective communication.”
The Boston law firm of WilmerHale is also part of the legal team.
Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe. com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.