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FILE PHOTO — A prisoner holds an empty granola bar box through the bars of his cell May 20, 2014, at Menard Correctional Center in Chester.

The Southern File Photo

A federal judge has granted class action status for a lawsuit filed in 2011 on behalf of 11 deaf and hard of hearing inmates at the Illinois Department of Corrections alleging systemic failures by the department to provide critical accommodations as required by law.

The lawsuit, which seeks to require the state to provide proper accommodations to an estimated 100 inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing, alleges improper denials of accommodations such as American Sign Language interpreters and other alternate forms of communication.

Without these accommodations, the lawsuit alleges, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners are endangered and deprived of meaningful access to religious services, healthcare, educational and vocational programs, telephones, televisions, library services, disciplinary proceedings, grievances, and pre-release programs.

In ruling that the case could proceed as a class action, Northern District Illinois Judge Marvin Aspen found that “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.”

“Plaintiffs presented significant proof of the systemic failures alleged,” he wrote this past week in the decision.

IDOC spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said the department is reviewing the court’s ruling and has no comment at this time.

The lawsuit was filed by Chicago-based Winston & Strawn LLP, serving as lead counsel; two Illinois nonprofit legal advocacy organizations, Equip for Equality and Uptown People’s Law Center; and the National Association for the Deaf.

“The fact that the Department of Corrections continues its refusal to follow the law and provide accommodations to this group of prisoners should appall every resident of Illinois,” stated Alan Mills, executive director of uptown People’s Law Center, in a statement.

Howard A. Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, said, “Deaf and hard of hearing people deserve equal access to education, religious services, medical treatment and telecommunications — even in prison.”

Barry Taylor, vice president for civil rights with Equip for Equality, the federal designation protection and advocacy agency for Illinois, said the organization estimates the class-action lawsuit would include at least 100 current inmates and all future inmates who are deaf or hard of hearing, and maybe more.

Part of the problem is that IDOC has not provided an accurate count of the number of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners in need of accommodations.

Though the lawsuit was filed four years ago, Taylor said it’s his belief that issues affecting these prisoners have not been remedied since then. “Every prison is a little different and some interpreters are provided but not consistently,” he said.

Nine of the 11 inmates named in the original lawsuit, some serving in Southern Illinois prisons, are still incarcerated. One has been released, and one inmate, Curtis Foster, has since died of a burst appendix.

Taylor said the legal teams are looking into whether his alleged insufficient accommodations for communicating may have led to his death by hindering his ability to communicate a medical need to staff.

In 2011, the lawsuit described Foster as a 46-year-old man incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center. He began his prison sentence in 1998 and spent the first five years at Menard Correctional Center. The lawsuit said Foster relied on American Sign Language to communicate and required an ASL interpreter to communicate with those who do not know ASL.

The lawsuit names as defendants Salvador Godinez, who was acting director of the department in 2011 when the suit was filed, and the agency’s then-disabilities coordinator. They are named in their official capacity, and Taylor said the lawsuit will be amended to name the current acting director, John Baldwin, who was appointed by Gov. Bruce Rauner to the post in August.

Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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