ACLU alleges disability discrimination, ‘pervasive mistreatment’ of people who are deaf by LVMPD
A federal lawsuit filed in Las Vegas on Thursday on behalf of a person who is deaf and was incarcerated in the Clark County Detention Center charged law enforcement personnel with disability discrimination, among other violations of rights guaranteed in the Nevada and U.S. constitutions.
In the lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the action against the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department came in response to “the pervasive mistreatment” of deaf and hard of hearing people incarcerated at Clark County Detention Center (CCDC), the largest jail in the state. The suit focuses on one person, but the ACLU says the problems are systemic, and the organization seeks broader policy changes.
“LVMPD, through its lack of appropriate policies and practices, fails to provide communication access for deaf and hard of hearing people in LVMPD’s custody and control,” the suit says.
In the court filing, attorneys cited the detention center’s failure to provide qualified sign language interpreters, video phones and other accommodations for people in custody that would ensure “effective communication” for those who are hard of hearing or deaf.
The police department did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment after the lawsuit was filed or additional details about the department’s disability training.
The ACLU is representing Christopher Jones, who was incarcerated at the CCDC from Nov. 27, 2019, until Oct. 7, 2022. The lawsuit said that Jones, who is deaf and whose preferred language is American Sign Language (ASL), requires modifications and accommodations to communicate with people who do not speak the language. Attorneys added that he needed to receive qualified interpreters, modifications or assistance while detained at CCDC and even faced disciplinary actions because the police department did not provide adequate communication accommodations.
“LVMPD fails to provide deaf people detained at CCDC effective communication by denying deaf people access to qualified interpreters and other necessary auxiliary aids and services for medical evaluations, disciplinary proceedings, and therapeutic, educational, and religious programming offered by the jail,” attorneys wrote. “This constitutes a failure to provide constitutionally minimum standards of medical treatment.”
Specifically, the lawsuit said that the police department violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments and the Nevada Constitution for indifference to a risk of harm to health or safety after a conviction. It also said the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires state and local governing bodies to give people an equal opportunity to benefit from all services, programming and activities, and the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in federal agency programs.
The lawsuit notes that people who are deaf or hard of hearing, whose primary language is ASL, often require ASL interpreters to ensure communication. Even those fluent in ASL and English may still require interpreters when interacting with complex subject matters.
ACLU attorneys alleged that the police department did not provide interpreter services to Jones, requiring him to communicate through written notes, but that communication was ineffective. They added that Jones only received remote interpreter services during the last few months of his detention, and he had to pay for the writing utensils he used to communicate with while incarcerated.
In one example listed in the lawsuit, Jones was accused of refusing to obey a direct order because he spoke to a psychiatric staffer instead of returning to his bunk when ordered to do so by staff members who were unaware that Jones was deaf.
He was transferred to solitary confinement that same day. The jail investigator recommended Jones receive a maximum sentence for the violation even though the investigator noted that staff members were unaware Jones was deaf when they ordered him back to his bunk, and Jones calmed down once someone communicated with him in basic ASL to explain what was happening.
Attorneys also said that officials denied Jones access to writing implements while he was in solitary confinement or the psychiatric unit. They added that when Jones was first incarcerated, he did not receive CCDC’s Inmate Handbook and suffered “arbitrary discipline” because he didn’t have any information on specific rules and procedures.
Attorneys wrote that notes, gestures and other forms of writing are not functional communication tools for people who are deaf, especially around topics such as medical care, mental health needs, prison rules and disciplinary hearings.
Though the police department has offered training to CCDC staff on the rights of people who are deaf and the services they are entitled to receive since at least 2004, the lawsuit alleges that the “trainings are clearly deficient due to the systemic failure to provide services required under the ADA, United State Constitution and Nevada Constitution.”
Reached via a phone call on Thursday, a spokeswoman with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department did not answer a question about whether the trainings are mandatory or optional, saying that The Nevada Independent would need to file a public records request to get that information. The department’s website had no readily available information on the subject.
Following his release from custody, Jones is on supervised parole. The lawsuit said that as part of probation, he must provide a written report to his probation officer, meet regularly with the officer and follow all probation requirements.
The lawsuit also alleges that if Jones does not receive modifications or assistance, he is more likely to accidentally violate the conditions of his probation and be incarcerated until he can come before the court supervising his probation.
The lawsuit calls for a jury trial and is seeking a declaration from the court that the LVMPD violated Jones’ rights, an order forbidding the police department from continuing the discrimination practices outlined in the suit, and an order requiring the department to comply with the ADA, Rehabilitation Act and other laws. It also includes punitive damages in an amount to be determined at the trial and an award for Jones’ attorneys’ fees alongside any other damages.
This story was updated on 1/11/2024 at 3 p.m. to include a note that The Nevada Independent reached out to LVMPD for a response and additional information.