Deaf Prisoners May Have Right to Use Videophones to Communicate With Outside World

In a recent landmark decision, the Fourth Circuit held that the failure to provide a videophone to a prisoner who is deaf so that he can communicate with people outside of prison may violate his First Amendment rights.

Thomas Heyer is a civil detainee currently held by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in Butner, North Carolina. He has been deaf his entire life and communicates primarily through American Sign Language (ASL). He challenged the BOP’s failure to accommodate his deafness, including its failure to provide ASL interpreters for medical and mental health treatment, interpreters for religious services, warning lights in his cell, and access to a videophone to communicate with persons outside of the prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Heyer’s claims. The Fourth Circuit held that the failure to provide sign language interpretation for medical and mental health appointments constitutes deliberate indifference and may violate the Fifth and Eight Amendments. The BOP’s assertion that a prisoner “companion” could interpret for medical and mental health visits was rejected as inconsistent with the need for reliable transmittal of information and privacy.

Significantly, in a landmark holding, the Court went on to conclude that the failure to provide a videophone to Mr. Heyer to communicate with persons outside of prison may violate his First Amendment rights. The Court held that the “First Amendment rights retained by convicted prisoners include the right to communicate with others beyond the prison walls.” Moreover, the Court found that BOP’s assertions that videophones posed a threat to security or were too costly were not supported by the evidence in the record. If no adequate alternative could be found to ensure Mr. Heyer’s ability to communicate, the trial court could order the use of a videophone.

The dismissal of these claims was reversed and sent back to the District Court for discovery and trial.

Mr. Heyer is represented by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

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