access settlement

NAD announces $175,000 settlement with New Jersey jail
Locked up without communication access; deaf man settles
discrimination complaint.
Silver Spring, MD — The National Association of the Deaf
and the law office of Clara R. Smit reached an agreement
with Mercer County, New Jersey to pay $175,000 to Ronald
Chisolm, a deaf man who was incarcerated in their
detention center for five days and appeared before the
county court without an interpreter in 1994. This
concluded a nine-year-old nightmare for Chisolm. In
addition Mercer County agreed to enter into an agreement
to provide injunctive relief for all future deaf inmates
incarcerated in their facility.
“Mr. Chisolm won a significant victory,” said Marc
Charmatz of the NAD Law and Advocacy Center. “He should
never have been in pre-trial detention and in court
without interpreter services to communicate effectively.
The settlement helps make up for five days of
discrimination he will never forget.”
On September 10, 1994, Chisolm was driving with a hearing
friend in Princeton, NJ when local police stopped his
vehicle and he was handcuffed and arrested. Chisolm
communicates primarily in American Sign Language so he had
no idea why he was being arrested. His friend tried to
explain what the police were saying to him with the little
sign language that he knew. Police said that there was an
open bench warrant for Chisolm, but he thought they meant
a “warranty” and did not understand what was being done.
Bewildered and frantic, Chisolm was taken to the Mercer
County Detention Center. Despite requests by Chisolm and
his friend for an interpreter and a TTY, none was
provided. Chisolm was placed in solitary confinement in a
solid four-walled cell with just a small rectangular
opening for food trays for the next four days. His only
contact with the outside world was with the intake
officers who classified him incorrectly as a vagrant. In
addition, a nurse incorrectly noted that he was a suicide
risk as he cried and flailed his arms in his attempts to
communicate. The incorrect classification and inability to
communicate with him had him classified as a higher
security risk so he was not placed in the general
The detention center failed to provide him with a TTY, so
Chisolm could not call his attorney until four days later
when the detention center allowed him access to the TTY
his friend brought him. His friend also contacted Smit, a
lawyer in East Brunswick, NJ who specializes in serving
the deaf. She began investigating the warrant and called
the detention center to try to arrange interpreter and a
TTY for Chisolm. Smit was told the jail could not provide
interpreters or TTYs.
During Smit’s investigation, she discovered the arrest
warrant had been issued from Bucks County, Pennsylvania as
a result of a DWI in 1989, five years prior to Chisolm’s
arrest. The state contended that Chisolm had never
attended the required classes to satisfy his plea. Smit
then found out Chisolm had attended the class in 1989, but
that there was no interpreter and he was told to go home.
Bucks County then issued a bench warrant for his arrest,
which remained open for five years.
On the fifth day of his incarceration on September 14,
after Chisolm had finally been removed from solitary
confinement and placed for one day in the open population,
he was taken to the Middlesex County Court for an
extradition hearing unbeknownst to Chisolm or Smit. There
was no interpreter at the court, so Chisolm was then sent
back to the jail with a note that they would bring him
back when someone was available to interpret. The court
then rescheduled the hearing for September 20; the date
given to them by one interpreter they called, who was not
told the deaf man was in jail waiting for an interpreter.
The court fully intended to keep him incarcerated an extra
six days solely because he was deaf.
“Mr. Chisolm was basically in solitary confinement for
five days because neither pre-trial detention nor court
officials could communicate with him,” said Charmatz. “No
one should have to go through this type of punishment.”
When Smit discovered he had been at court without an
interpreter and the hearing adjourned for six days, she
then called the interpreter herself and arranged for a
hearing the very next morning. She also had the warrant
quashed that afternoon and Chisolm was finally released.
In 1995, Chisolm filed his complaint in federal court
against the Mercer County Detention Center and the County
Court for their failure to provide interpreters, closed
captioning and telecommunication devices during his
incarceration and court appearance in violation of federal
and state law. After numerous court decisions and an
appeal in which the United States Court of Appeals for the
Third Circuit revived the case in 2001, this case was set
for trial in the federal court before Judge Mary Cooper.
Smit and Charmatz represented Chisolm in the case. After
eight years of litigation, Mercer County Detention Center
agreed to settle the case and pay $175,000 for monetary
damages and attorneys’ fees, and provide for injunctive
relief in the settlement agreement.
The settlement agreement will provide for signage
throughout Mercer County Detention Center to alert both
inmates and staff alike to the facilities’ responsibility
to provide interpreters, closed captioning and TTYs to
deaf inmates to ensure effective communication. In
addition, the agreement mandates that the detention center
follow several steps to ensure all possible efforts are
made to obtain an interpreter whenever required throughout
the day or night. Training and policy changes to implement
the settlement agreement which will become part of the
Detention Center’s administrative policy are also required
as part of the agreement.
Smit, Charmatz and Chisolm are extremely pleased and
excited with this settlement and hope to see major changes
in detention centers across the country, in their policies
and practices.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the New Jersey
Law Against Discrimination, and the Rehabilitation Act
specifically require that jails and detention centers
provide reasonable accommodations, such as interpreters to
the deaf. Communication difficulties in the past created
extremely limited access to the legal community and the
courts in general for deaf individuals. Smit and the
National Association for the Deaf are working to bring
about changes and awareness through lawsuits against
jails, prisons, and court systems that do not follow the
Posted to the DeafVErmont listserv by Rene.

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