TDOC Needs to Stop Denying Effective Communication

low concrete prison building in TN behind a chainlink fence

Today, CREEC and Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) filed a Complaint seeking access to effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) custody as required by law.

Kevin Trivette is deaf and his primary language is American Sign Language (ASL); like many people who are deaf, he understands English only as a second language. While in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Mr. Trivette was repeatedly denied crucial – and legally mandated – sign language communication for medical appointments, required classes, and religious services. TDOC also denied him a videophone, which he needed to communicate with his loved ones. Unfortunately, Mr. Trivette is not alone. TDOC routinely denies deaf and hard of hearing inmates qualified sign language interpreters and videophones. These unlawful and potentially harmful denials of effective communication to deaf and hard of hearing individuals who are incarcerated is a pattern of behavior at TDOC.

Today, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) and Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) filed a Complaint in the federal district court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of Mr. Trivette and DRT. The suit is based on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). The ADA and Section 504 require that state prisons provide inmates in their custody with equal access to programs and services, including providing sign language interpreters and videophones when needed for effective communication, and equal access to phone privileges.

“I want people to know deaf people have rights. We need access to communication for things like doctor’s appointments and classes. Writing notes isn’t enough — we need information in our first language, ASL. I want deaf and hard of hearing inmates to be treated like other inmates, not as less than. I don’t want other deaf inmates to have the same problems I had and I hope this lawsuit makes TDOC fix these problems so that current and future inmates have equal access to communication,” said Kevin Trivette, plaintiff.

This is far from the only example of TDOC’s failure to provide deaf and hard of hearing inmates with required effective communication. Despite repeated advocacy by DRT on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing incarcerated people, TDOC has, for years, systematically and repeatedly denied deaf and hard of hearing inmates qualified sign language interpreters during critical communications involving medical care, classification, religious services, and optional and mandatory educational classes. As a result of this unlawful denial, deaf and hard of hearing inmates in TDOC custody regularly do not have access to adequate health care or to critical programs and services designed to prepare them for successful reentry. Furthermore, TDOC’s current failure to provide working videophones is not only discriminatory; it prevents communication between deaf and hard of hearing inmates and their loved ones who themselves may be deaf or hard of hearing. This increases feelings of isolation, loneliness and confusion during the best of times, let alone during times like the current pandemic.

While Mr. Trivette is now on parole and not currently subject to TDOC’s discriminatory practices, he and the organizational plaintiff DRT are determined to make the situation better for current and future deaf and hard of hearing inmates held in TDOC facilities.

 “By not providing sign language interpreters to deaf and hard of hearing inmates, TDOC is denying these individuals the ability to take educational classes, get their GEDs, and learn skills that will help them lead productive lives upon release. More than that, TDOC is discriminating against these individuals based on their disabilities, and that is illegal under federal law,” said Stacie Price, attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee.

“This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA. It is outrageous that TDOC continues to treat deaf and hard of hearing inmates as second-class citizens. These inmates deserve equal access to communication. TDOC must be held accountable for its discrimination against Mr. Trivette and others,” said Martie Lafferty, Director of the Accessibility Project at Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.


Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT), formerly Disability Law & Advocacy Center of Tennessee, is the designated protection & advocacy agency for Tennessee. DRT provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities. For 40 years, DRT has served over 50,000 people through direct services, education, and systemic advocacy.

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