California Fails to Adequately Assist Blind and Deaf Prisoners, US Choose Guidelines


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Thirty years after prisoners with disabilities sued the state of California and 25 years after a federal court first ordered accommodations, a judge found that state prison and parole officials still are not doing enough to help deaf and blind prisoners — in part because they are not using readily available technology such as video recordings and laptop computers.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s rulings on March 20 centered on the prison system’s need to help deaf, blind, and low-vision prisoners better prepare for parole hearings, though the decisions are also likely to improve accommodations for hundreds of other prisoners with those disabilities.

“I believe I should have the same opportunity as hearing individuals,” a prisoner, deaf since birth, said in court documents.

The lawsuit is one of several class-action proceedings that have led the courts to assume oversight of the prison system’s treatment of those who are sick or suffer from mental illnesses.

“It is difficult not to despair,” a blind prisoner said in written testimony. “I am desperate for some kind of assistance that will let me prepare adequately for my parole hearing.”

The parole process can begin more than a year before an incarcerated person’s hearing and last long afterward. And the consequences of rejection are great: People denied parole typically must wait three to 15 years before they can try again.

Prisoners are expected to review their prison records and a psychologist’s assessment of whether they are at risk for future violence, write a release plan including housing and work plans, write letters of remorse, and prepare a statement to parole officials on why they should be released.

“It is a very time-consuming and important process,” said Gay Grunfeld, one of the attorneys representing about 10,000 prisoners with many different disabilities in the federal class-action lawsuit. “All of these tasks are harder if you are blind, low-vision, or deaf.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and its Board of Parole Hearings “remain committed to conducting fair hearings and ensuring access to the hearings for all participants. We are assessing the potential impact of the order and exploring available legal options,” said spokesperson Albert Lundeen.

The department counts more than 500 prisoners with serious vision problems and about 80 with severe hearing problems, though Grunfeld thinks both are undercounts.

California’s prison system has lagged in adopting technological accommodations that are commonly used in the outside world, Wilken found in her ruling.

For instance, California gives prisoners digital tablets that can be used for communications and entertainment, and since late 2021 has gradually been providing secure laptops to prisoners who are enrolled in college, GED, and high school diploma programs.

But officials balked at providing computers that Wilken decided are needed by some prisoners with disabilities. She required the department to develop a plan within 60 days of her order to, among many things, provide those individuals with laptops equipped with accommodations like screen magnification and software that can translate text to speech or Braille.

“It would make a huge difference to me to have equipment that would let me listen to and dictate written words, or produce written documents in another accessible manner,” testified the blind prisoner. He added that such accommodations “would finally let me properly prepare for my parole hearing with the privacy, independence, and dignity that all humans deserve.”

Similarly, California routinely uses video cameras during parole proceedings, including when it conducted hearings remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. But prison policy has prohibited videotaping the hearings, including sign language translations that some deaf prisoners rely on to understand the proceedings.

The deaf-since-birth prisoner, for example, testified that he also doesn’t speak, his primary method of communication is American Sign Language, and his English is so poor that written transcripts do him no good. He advocated for recorded sign language translations of the hearings and related documents that he could review whenever he wanted, in the same way that other inmates can review written text.

Wilken ordered prison officials to comply.

“They need to be able to watch it later, not read it later,” said Grunfeld. “It’s going to make a huge difference in the lives of deaf signers.”

The department recently acquired 100 portable electronic video magnifiers, at a cost of $1,100 each, that prisoners with low vision can check out to use in their cells. The technology will augment similar devices in prison libraries that prisoners say aren’t private and can be used only during libraries’ limited hours.

Wilken said officials acquired the magnifiers only after prodding by prisoners and their attorneys.

Grunfeld said the judge’s detailed order, which includes requirements like better assistance from attorneys, will “make sure that people with disabilities are on an equal footing as people who don’t have disabilities.”

“My colleagues and I have been working for several years to persuade CDCR to adopt this technology, and it’s been slow-going. But they’ve gradually accepted that they do need to do this,” Grunfeld said. “It’s long past due, but at least it’s coming.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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