Larry Berke, a deaf man preparing to serve time in prison for mail fraud, is suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons over his assignment to a facility that he claims isn't equipped to accommodate a deaf prisoner.
Berke, represented by counsel from Ballard Spahr and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, filed the complaint (PDF) on August 14 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He's also asking for a temporary restraining order, since he's scheduled to begin serving time on August 23.
After pleading guilty to a single count of mail fraud, Berke was sentenced in December 2011 to serve 24 months in prison. The judge recommended that Berke be assigned to a prison that could accommodate him, but Berke claims the bureau failed to do so.
Berke, according to the complaint, is "profoundly deaf," which means he can hear some sounds but can't understand speech. He is fluent in American Sign Language but does not read lips.
According to the complaint, Berke is set to serve his sentence in a federal prison in Florence, Colo., which doesn't have accommodations such as visual safety alarms (except for fires) or visual videophones, which Berke says is the only way he can communicate with people outside of the prison.
Berke is also alleging that the bureau doesn't provide interpreters for deaf prisoners for everything from orientation and disciplinary proceedings to religious or educational programs. He also expressed that concern that he wouldn't be able to communicate with medical personnel.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal Rehabilitation Act as well as violations of his rights to due process, free speech and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
Berke is being represented by Ballard Spahr partner Constantinos Panagopoulis and Washington Lawyers' Committee attorneys Ivy Finkenstadt and E. Elaine Gardiner, who runs the committee's Disability Rights Project.
"What is especially compelling about this case is that, although other ADX Camp prisoners have access to telephones, Mr. Berke will have no way to call his deaf family and friends, including his wife and children," Finkenstadt said in a statement. "Mr. Berke’s youngest children are too young to be able to read or write, and the only way they could communicate with their father while he is incarcerated would be through videophone.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.
The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle.