A handful of county jails in Minnesota will change their policies for deaf inmates in response to a string of lawsuits filed over disability discrimination claims.
In a settlement announced Tuesday, jails in Washington, Isanti, Stearns and Rice counties agreed to a list of improvements to remove communication barriers including the hiring of a coordinator for deaf services, staff training, quick access to qualified interpreters and updated equipment such as videophones.
The seven plaintiffs who sued in 2014 and 2015 also received an undisclosed monetary award.
“It’s our hope that these agreements will serve as a model for other jails in the state,” said Rick Macpherson, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, who represented the plaintiffs.
Macpherson and attorney Heather Gilbert each started to receive complaints about the treatment of deaf inmates at the four jails.
Some weren’t given an interpreter when requested, or told jail announcements.
There was no way for the inmates to communicate with relatives or an attorney or contact social workers or probation officers.
Choua Yang, who was an inmate in the Washington County jail, said he couldn’t reach his probation officer, which caused him to be jailed for four extra days. “There was no way for me to communicate to the outside world,” he said through an interpreter. “I ended up missing Christmas. I felt so isolated.”
Jim Andreen, who represented the jails, said the counties were very responsive to issues raised in the suits.
It didn’t take long to find solutions, though there were some challenges to making substantial changes to jail policy, he said.
“I think this was a win-win for both sides,” he said. “The jails do want to look out for the welfare of their inmates.”
Andreen said other jails have already used the settlement to create or fine-tune their own policies regarding deaf inmates.