In October 2020, Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) filed an emergency motion asking the Court to order the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) to immediately install videophones for two Deaf Plaintiffs incarcerated in TDOC facilities and provide these individuals with access to its phone program equal to that of hearing inmates. On May 5, 2021, the Court granted this motion and ordered that the parties work together to ensure meaningful access to videophones.
The Court’s Order is an important step toward the Plaintiffs’ goal of ensuring that TDOC’s programs and services are fully accessible to Deaf inmates. This Motion for Preliminary Injunction was filed in the ongoing case Trivette et al. v TDOC. In March 2020, CREEC and DRT filed a Complaint in the federal district court for the Middle District of Tennessee alleging that TDOC has violated and is continuing to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide sign language interpreters, videophones, and other technology necessary for effective communication.
“While we hope this lawsuit will ultimately result in systemic changes to ensure effective communication for all Deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in TDOC custody, we filed this Motion requesting installation of videophones due to the urgency of two of our Plaintiffs’ situations,” said Martie Lafferty, Director of the Accessibility Project at Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.
Prior to the motion, despite repeated requests from Plaintiffs, TDOC refused to provide videophones to either inmate. Instead TDOC provided an ineffective and obsolete technology developed in the 1960s called teletypewriter (TTY). TTYs require users to type messages back and forth using a written language like English, denying Deaf people the ability to communicate in their native language, American Sign Language (ASL), which is a visual form of communication. For this reason, most Deaf people no longer have TTYs, instead using videophones that operate like FaceTime to ensure reliable communication. That is the case for the Deaf family and friends of both Plaintiffs. Because their loved ones do not have TTY machines, when either inmate used the prison TTY to place a call, their typed message had to be read by an ASL interpreter who then placed a second call using a videophone to the inmate’s contact outside the prison and translated the typed message into ASL for the recipient. The reverse needed to happen with a reply from outside prison to the inmate. The result was often a garbled or unclear communication that takes a very long time to occur – literally the children’s game of telephone.
“During this pandemic, phone communication is particularly critical for all inmates to maintain their connections with their loved ones,” said Stacie Price, attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee.
Federal law requires prisons to provide effective communication to Deaf inmates. This requirement includes the obligation to provide equal access to a prison’s phone program. Across the United States, multiple prison systems provide videophones to Deaf inmates. In addition, at least two federal courts have made clear videophones are required for effective communication.
“We look forward to working with the State to ensure meaningful access to videophones for all current and future inmates who are Deaf and will continue to advocate for effective communication for all Tennesseans who are members of the Deaf Community,” said Daniel L. Ellis, attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee.
Kelsey Loschke, Disability Rights Tennessee: firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-732-6965
Martie Lafferty, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center: email@example.com, 615-913-5099
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. https://www.disabilityrightstn.org/
Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) is a nonprofit membership organization whose goal is to ensure that everyone can fully and independently participate in our nation’s civic life without discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity. https://creeclaw.org/