Arlington County makes $250,000 settlement with deaf inmate

Arlington County makes $250,000 settlement with deaf inmate

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McLEAN, Va. (AP) — The Arlington County Sheriff's Office is implementing new procedures to accommodate deaf inmates after reaching a $250,000 civil settlement with a former inmate who said he was unable to communicate effectively during a weekslong incarceration.

Abreham Zemedagegehu, a homeless man and Ethiopian immigrant, sued the sheriff's office last year. He spent six weeks at the county jail on charges he stole another man's iPad; that man later recanted his accusation.

Zemedagegehu can't read or write English and said for the first few days of his incarceration he didn't even know why he'd been arrested. He said his requests for an American Sign Language interpreter frequently went unanswered.

He said jail officials offered him a Teletype machine to communicate with the outside world, but that was ineffective because the technology is obsolete and hardly used in the deaf community any more. It also requires a command of English. He said he needed access to a videophone or video relay service that is more commonly used.

The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria announced the settlement Friday. The settlement requires the sheriff's office to procure videophones and other devices for use by deaf inmates.

Other requirements of the settlement include appointing a coordinator to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, providing staff training, providing hearing aid and cochlear implant batteries in the jail, and other improvements.

The county jail had initially sought to have the lawsuit dismissed and defended its practices. For the past several months, though, court documents indicate the sheriff's office had reached an agreement with Zemedagegehu and were simply waiting on Justice Department attorneys to sign off on the deal.

In a statement Friday, Sheriff Beth Arthur said her office "strives to treat all individuals committed to our detention facility with dignity and respect. These changes to our policies and practices will enable my staff to provide the means necessary for individuals with disabilities to benefit from all the programs and activities provided in our facility."

Arthur said the sheriff's office began making changes in August 2015, shortly after the lawsuit was filed. She said technology has already been upgraded and ADA training has been implemented.

Jonathan Goodrich, a lawyer with the Akin Gump law firm who took Zemedagegehu's case on a pro bono basis, said Friday that his client is "thrilled with the result, in particular with the changes in policies at the facility that will ensure that in the future other deaf people can effectively communicate while there. Abreham continues to keep this ordeal in his rearview mirror, and wishes not to dwell on the trauma that he endured."

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