Suit Claims Denial of Equal Access
By Shayna Coleon, Advertiser Staff Writer
HONOLULU – A deaf prisoner at the Women’s Correctional Center in Kailua filed a lawsuit yesterday against the Department of Public Safety, charging that the state failed to provide her with an America sign language interpreter and equal access to facilities, programs and activities.
In the suit, inmate Charing Bernard said the state violated her prisoner’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Her lawyers said they will cite a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year declaring that disabled prisoners, such as Bernard, must be provided with accommodations, including interpreters for hearing impaired inmates.
Department of Public Safety director Ted Sakai yesterday said he was surprised by the lawsuit.
“They never contacted us until now, and we were not aware of this problem,” Sakai said. “I don’t know know if it’s true. I don’t know if what the prisoner is alleging is even true.”
Sakai has not read the lawsuit yet, but he said the department meets the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“We are very aware of ADA, and we try out best to comply and make sure we follow it,” Sakai said.
Bernard’s lawyers said that, without an interpreter, Bernard cannot participate in religious and educational programs. As a result, the Hawaii Paroling Authority won’t be able to give her consideration for participating in programs that might help her to get released on parole, said Honolulu attorney Carl Varady, who represents Bernard along with lawyer Stan Levin.
“She is severely hearing impaired and cannot communicate with here jailers,” Varady said. “She cannot communicate with the people who are running the programs and cannot communicate with the paroling authority in an effective manner.”
Varady said Bernard who has served three years of an eight-year sentence for drug charges, was denied an interpreter at a parole hearing last October.
Bernard’s lawyers are seeking to have the lawsuit declared a class-action suit in behalf of all disabled prisoners seeking equal access to prison activities and programs.
Cheryl Kaster, Bernard’s social worker and president of Na Lima Aloha, a nonprofit organization for Hawaii’s deaf community, said the prison’s only telephone device for the deaf is broken, which also cuts Bernard off from the outside world.
Bernard, who has been deaf since childhood, can hear only minimal sounds when she wears a hearing aid and can understand only American sign language, Kaster said.
“Charing is very frustrated,” Kaster said. “She cannot do what she wants to do to get out on parole, and get out of prison because she has repeatedly been denied of her rights.”
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