For weeks, deaf inmate Nicholas Zentic could only communicate with Isanti County jail staff through handwritten notes and by banging on his cell door. He repeatedly asked for an interpreter, but the delay in fulfilling his request caused him to miss counseling meetings and resulted in the mishandling of a work release assignment.
The barriers faced by Zentic and other inmates with physical and mental disabilities are difficult to resolve because the state doesn’t require any standard care policies for county jails. If a policy does exist, it usually varies by facility.
In the case of Zentic and six other deaf people, a recent lawsuit settlement resulted in significant changes in how jail staff will accommodate deaf inmates at four county jails in the future. But advocates say needs for disabled prisoners are often handled in an inefficient and arbitrary manner.
“We do want to meet the needs of this population, but there is only so much you can do before somebody with a disability arrives in jail,” said Cmdr. Dave Pacholl, who runs the Anoka County jail. “There are no standards. Like other jails, we watch nationwide trends and models.”
More than 40 percent of jail inmates nationwide have at least one disability, according to a 2012 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The disabilities typically involve hearing, vision, memory and judgment, walking, self-care or ability to live independently.
The state’s largest county jails — in Hennepin and Ramsey counties — have detailed policies and training procedures for the care of disabled inmates. In August, Hennepin County jail officials received a letter from the Minnesota Disability Law Center praising its level of mental and medical treatment and services for the disabled.
Hennepin County’s policy spells out everything from the staff having a maximum of 72 hours to reasonably accommodate special needs for the disabled to the procedures for taking disciplinary actions against an inmate. It even discusses what to do with service animals.
Although training programs for dealing with inmates with disabilities aren’t mandated, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association offers specific courses on working with the disabled in its basic academy for new jail employees. The training is heavily attended, said Jim Franklin, the association’s executive director.
“As you might expect, these are not the typical type of inmates that come to jail,” he said. “But if they do come, we have ways to meet those needs, including transfer to other jails if necessary.”
The problems for Alan Read, who is deaf, started before he was taken to the Washington County jail in 2013. He called 911 because a family member was stealing items from his home. But miscommunication between Read and responding officers landed him in jail for two days before he was able to reach his family.
Jail staff eventually found a TTY telephone device used by the deaf, but it was broken, and Read had to fix it before he could reach his family.
Read, 58, was one of the seven deaf inmates who filed the lawsuits leading to procedural changes at Washington, Stearns, Isanti and Rice counties to improve communication. The improvements included the hiring of a coordinator for deaf services, staff training, quick access to qualified interpreters and updated equipment such as videophones.
Carol Holinka, Rice County’s jail administrator, said the county was already looking into improving services for the deaf before the suit settlement. The jail now has a tablet and access to a qualified interpreter 24 hours a day, she said.
“We needed to train our staff about making sure they figured out what preference of communication a deaf inmate needs. They are happy with the changes,” she said.
Many complaints from the disabled about jail conditions are directed to Bud Rosenfield and the staff of the Minnesota Disability Law Center-Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. The calls and letters fall into two broad categories: access to health care and reasonable accommodations, Rosenfield said.
Mishandling of a disability can sometimes lead to unwarranted disciplinary action or segregation for the prisoner, he said.
“Somebody might need a cane, walker or wheelchair, which jail staff have to view as a potential weapon,” Rosenfield said. “And if they have a short stay in the jail, they may never receive the things they need.”
The biggest frustration is the lack of uniformity in how jails might deal with a disabled inmate, he said. In the past year, Rosenfield’s organization did a fair amount of jail monitoring to help point out more efficient methods to better serve this unique population, he said.
Last year, state advocates for the deaf failed to get a hearing at the Legislature for a bill that would have standardized jail procedures. This year, there might be a broader push with the state’s association of county jail administrators, Rosenfield said.
“But there isn’t one entity that can tell each county what to do,” he said. “It would be nice to have a model policy and have jail staff go through the right kind of inmate evaluations. Then the chances of getting it right goes way up.”