Lawsuit by deaf prisoners granted class-action status

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — A federal lawsuit by deaf and hard-of-hearing Illinois prisoners will proceed with class-action status after a ruling by a U.S. District Court judge.

Judge Marvin E. Aspen ruled the bulk of the lawsuit originally filed on behalf of eleven prisoners in 2011 may proceed.

The plaintiffs argue the Illinois Department of Corrections has failed to provide critical accommodations to hearing-impaired prisoners, including by not providing American Sign Language interpreters and other alternate forms of communication.

Without those accommodations, the prisoners say they are deprived of meaningful access to religious services, health care, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings.

The correctional department has no comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said Monday.

Allowing the case to move forward, the court found there “are considerable disputed facts as to whether IDOC has appropriate policies and procedures in place and whether those that do exist are sufficient or even practiced and enforced.”

The suit was filed by the law firm Winston & Strawn LLP, which is serving as lead counsel and providing its services at no charge. Also participating are the National Association of the Deaf and two Illinois non-profit legal advocacy groups, Equip for Equality and Uptown People’s Law Center.

“We are pleased that the judge has granted class action status to our case so that we can address the widespread discrimination that deaf and hard of hearing prisoners face on a daily basis in Illinois prisons,” said Barry C. Taylor of Equip for Equality. “The IDOC’s failures have forced deaf and hard of hearing prisoners to serve their time largely isolated from, and unable to effectively communicate with, other human beings.”

A class action is a procedural device that permits one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group, according to the Cornell University Law School. Put simply, it allows courts to manage lawsuits that would otherwise be unmanageable if each were required to be joined in the lawsuit as a named plaintiff.

The case is Holmes v. Godinez, No. 11 C 2961. It is being heard in the Northern District of Illinois. A copy of the complaint and the judge’s Oct. 8 ruling can be found here.

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