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Disability Rights Florida Files Lawsuit Against Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for Systemic Violations of Disability Laws

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Disability Independence Group, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, and Disability Rights Florida, Florida’s federally-funded Protection and Advocacy organization, have filed a federal lawsuit against the Miami Dade County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Miami Dade County) over its alleged systemic failure to comply with federal measures intended to protect individuals with disabilities processed and incarcerated at their locations throughout the County. The suit accuses Miami Dade County of routinely violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act in its repeated failure to provide ASL Interpreters and other necessary auxiliary aids and services to individuals who are Deaf.  

The case came about because of the experiences of numerous individuals who are Deaf who have faced discrimination at the hands of Miami Dade County. Matthew Dietz, an attorney from Disability Independence Group, has been investigating Miami Dade County’s shortcomings and attempting to educate those involved and remediate these violations on behalf of Plaintiffs named in the Complaint for more than four years. Despite these efforts, there has been no improvement; the Complaint recounts the ordeals of two individuals who are Deaf who have suffered directly from Miami Dade County’s failure to comply with relevant federal laws intended to protect such individuals – even upon incarceration.

Joel Martos is a profoundly Deaf individual who communicates primarily using American Sign Language (ASL), which is his native language. He relies on ASL interpreters and other auxiliary aids to communicate with individuals who do not use sign language. As explained in the Complaint, throughout a period of more than three years of incarceration, Miami Dade County has routinely failed to provide Mr. Martos with even the most basic communication accommodations.  He was denied accommodations beginning at intake, underwent medical tests and psychological examinations without the assistance of any communication and was similarly denied access to other programs in the jail. Because Mr. Martos was unable to communicate, he had no understanding of either the programs available to him or the conditions of probation, and additionally had no meaningful contact with family, friends or lawyers.

Joshua Santuche is a profoundly Deaf individual who also communicates using ASL. Mr. Santuche was arrested in October 2015 but, similar to Mr. Martos, was not provided with an interpreter upon arrival at Miami Dade County jail. Mr. Santuche attempted to communicate with officers through hand gestures that he was Deaf and needed an interpreter but was ignored by some officers and ridiculed by others, as explained in the Complaint. At no point was Mr. Santuche provided with a videophone or any other means of communication to contact an attorney, a bail bondsmen, or his family. Again at his bond hearing, no ASL interpreter was provided.  Had Mr. Santuche’s mother not been available and present at the hearing to interpret for him using what she refers to as “survival sign language” Mr. Santuche would have remained incarcerated. Thereafter, at a majority of the subsequent hearings at the Miami Dade County Courthouse, no ASL interpreter has been provided to Mr. Santuche despite Miami Dade County having ample knowledge, opportunity and time to secure one.  

“A Deaf inmate in a Miami-Dade County jail is essentially in solitary confinement,” said Dietz, Litigation Director of Disability Independence Group, “there is no meaningful communication with others, no access to any programs and services, and no knowledge of the rules and procedures. A Deaf inmate is required to become invisible, to avoid confrontation, to avoid medical need, to avoid rehabilitative services, to avoid recreational services, and wait endlessly in isolation for the incarceration to end.” 

“As Florida’s Protection and Advocacy organization, we have a responsibility to ensure that the rights and dignity of individuals with disabilities are being respected,” said Molly J. Paris, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Florida. “The law requires that individuals who are Deaf are properly accommodated and are afforded the opportunity to communicate so that instances of unnecessary incarceration or re-incarceration are avoided. Miami Dade County is simply not following the law.”

The Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction requiring Miami Dade County to, among other remedies, comply with federal disability laws, provide inmates with the aids and services they need and to ensure that such discrimination and failure does not continue to harm individuals with disabilities. The Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Matthew Dietz from Disability Independence Group and David A. Boyer and Molly J. Paris from Disability Rights Florida. 

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