Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners had to wait up to eight months for audiological evaluations in order to receive hearing aids a year after the state inked a class action settlement agreement with its deaf population in 2018, according to a federal judge’s ruling issued this week.
U.S. District Judge Young B. Kim found the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) had failed to hire audiologists to perform evaluations for prisoners after failing hearing screenings. Instead, the department hired licensed hearing instrument dispensers — those with many fewer years of schooling and training than hearing specialists — to perform the testing.
While IDOC said that practice ended last summer, Judge Kim said the agency’s failure to comply with the July 2018 settlement agreement violated deaf prisoners’ civil rights as it left them unable to properly hear the world around them.
“While the court appreciates IDOC’s difficulties in identifying audiologists to perform Audiological Evaluations, it simply is not reasonable for a Class Member to wait up to eight months after a failed Hearing Screening to receive an Audiological Evaluation,” Judge Kim wrote in his order. “The ability to communicate is essential not only for safety and disciplinary matters…but also for the protection of civil rights.”
A spokeswoman for IDOC declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The 2018 settlement resolved a years-long case in which hard-of-hearing prisoners alleged IDOC systematically failed to provide American Sign Language interpreters to inmates and did not offer alternate forms of communication to inmates.
The use of licensed hearing instrument dispensers instead of audiologists was “extensive,” according to plaintiffs; they performed 700 or more hearing evaluations in IDOC’s 26 facilities, Judge Kim said.
Plaintiffs attorney Rachel Weisberg of Chicago-based disabilities rights organization Equip for Equality said she and her co-counsel were surprised that the state would neglect to follow the terms of the settlement in its first year, but said she believed IDOC’s contention that its major contracting health service provider, Wexford Health Services Inc., was the party flouting the settlement.
“IDOC told us they didn’t know this is happening because Wexford was doing it,” Weisberg said. “But the court made quite clear these types of violations won’t be tolerated.”
Wexford has been the subject of other litigation, including major federal consent decrees for its alleged failure to treat patients in prison with a certain standard of care.
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Last year, Wexford changed a policy that would effectively refuse prisoners eye surgery if they had one eye that worked after WBEZ reported on the so-called “one good eye” policy, which Wexford considers a “trade secret.”