Incarcerated Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People Win Access to Life-Saving Fire Alarms and Other Emergency Notifications

Incarcerated Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People Win Access to Life-Saving Fire Alarms and Other Emergency Notifications

Client News

The press release below was originally distributed by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts and republished with permission.

In a long-awaited victory, incarcerated people who are deaf or hard of hearing will receive life-saving emergency notifications in Massachusetts correctional facilities. Following eight years of litigation culminating in a trial in August, United States District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled that the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s (DOC) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide an effective emergency alarm system and evacuation procedures for people in custody who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“It doesn’t just impact me. It impacts the whole population here. You have elderly people, people with other disabilities, officers – an evacuation procedure that works for all of us sends the message that we all matter,” said Daniel McNair, an incarcerated person and trial witness for the case.

The case is entitled Briggs, et al. v. Department of Correction, et al. The plaintiffs, represented by Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, Disability Law Center, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and WilmerHale, argued that because many housing units and common areas in DOC facilities rely exclusively on audible alarms, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals face a significant risk of death or serious injury because of their inability to hear safety announcements and fire alarms. Multiple class members testified at the trial about instances when they were left behind in their cells or did not evacuate promptly during fire drills because they did not hear the alarm.

“This ruling sends a clear message that disability rights do not stop at the prison gates. For far too long, DOC failed to meet its basic legal obligations to ensure equal access to emergency notifications and alarms for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners. Today’s decision is an important win for incarcerated people with disabilities,” said Lisa Pirozzolo, Partner at WilmerHale.

“In combination with the wide-ranging 2019 settlement in this case, the Court’s decision makes clear that DOC must provide people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing access to effective communication, programming, and other services, including life-saving emergency notifications. We are grateful to our clients for their resolve and hope that the ruling serves as a reminder that individuals with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations from all Commonwealth agencies,” said Tatum A. Pritchard, Director of Litigation at the Disability Law Center.

Experts presented by the plaintiffs confirmed that there are many effective means of emergency notification—including visual alarms like strobe lights and tactile alerts—that could serve as appropriate accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. After years of review and discussion, even DOC officials have acknowledged the “system wide” need for such accommodations.

“We are thrilled that incarcerated deaf and hard-of-hearing people have secured accommodations for their disabilities,” said Kaitlin Banner, Deputy Legal Director at Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “However, it’s disappointing that it required a lawsuit to ensure that people in Massachusetts are guaranteed their right to safety. Massachusetts was not the first state that we’ve fought for access to emergency alarms, but we hope it will be the last state where such a suit is necessary.”

In its ruling, the court ordered the DOC to develop comprehensive policies for each prison to ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners can finally receive lifesaving emergency notifications on equal terms with people who do not have disabilities. The court recognized that anything less would subject these incarcerated people to unacceptable risks to their safety and well-being in violation of federal law.

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners in Massachusetts have been left in their cells during emergencies because DOC has unlawfully refused to provide reasonable accommodations to protect them from dying in a fire. This ruling confirms what we have argued all along – that visual alarms are necessary to protect the health and safety of these individuals and allow them equal access to emergency notifications. I want to thank our clients for their courage and perseverance in this long fight to achieve justice,” said James Pingeon, Litigation Director at Prisoners Legal Services.

The DOC will have until May 16, 2024, to propose a comprehensive policy that provides effective emergency alerts to all deaf and hard of hearing incarcerated people. After plaintiffs have a chance to review and comment, the policy will be submitted to the court for final review and approval.

The alarm system and evacuation plan were the remaining claims not addressed by a comprehensive settlement agreement approved by the court in 2019 in the Briggs litigation. That settlement remedied a wide range of issues faced by incarcerated people with hearing disabilities, including access to hearing aids and sign language interpreters, videophones and captioned telephones, and discrimination in workplace assignments. DOC’s compliance with the terms of that settlement agreement is still being monitored by the court.  



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