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How using outdated technology with deaf inmates risks lawsuits and prison staff safety

Court settlement amounts against prisons and jails that did not provide deaf inmates with the ability to make legally entitled telephone calls have totaled in the millions


An inmate using secured video relay.

Image/Tidal Wave Telecom

The communication needs of the deaf in jails and prisons are frequently confusing to correctional officers, sheriff’s deputies and facility administrators. Deaf inmates have constitutional and statutory rights to equal access to services, including communication. Unfortunately, deaf individuals in correctional facilities are sometimes being denied access to the telephone network.

When communication services are available to hearing inmates, but the correctional facility fails to provide the accommodations necessary to make the same services available to deaf individuals, the facility becomes liable for failing to provide equal access.

This right to equal access is backed by numerous laws enacted by Congress over the past half century that are specifically designed to ensure disabled individuals have access to the communication services, programs, activities, public facilities and other resources available to the general population.

A recent history of costly litigation settlements

In 2014, a deaf Ethiopian immigrant spent six weeks in a U.S. jail, during which he was not allowed to make phone calls. His lawsuit against the sheriff’s office was settled for $250,000.

In 2015, a New York City woman who is deaf said NYPD officers wrongfully arrested her and ignored her pleas for an American Sign Language interpreter. The woman settled her lawsuit against the city for $750,000 – a sum her attorney said was the largest deaf discrimination settlement for a single person.

The officers in this case ignored police guidelines regarding how to deal with the deaf, thus violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Compliance requirements are now mandated, not only by the ADA, but also legislation such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA).

In the wake of these – and several other lawsuits nationwide – many jails and prisons are reevaluating the communication services available to deaf inmates and prisoners.

Court settlement amounts against prisons and jails that did not provide deaf inmates with access to make legally entitled telephone calls have totaled in the millions, according to Jack McWilson, Senior Vice President of Tidal Wave Telecom, a provider of secured video relay for deaf inmates to make video calls.

“TTY – once considered the accepted standard – is an out-of-date technology that increases a jail or prison’s legal risk,” said McWilson. “It has been replaced by video-based technology called Video Relay Service (VRS) that seamlessly relays a video call between a deaf individual and a hearing person via an interpreter. Implementing residential VRS in jails and prisons for use by deaf inmates meets the ADA requirement. However, it also introduces a significant security threat for the prison staff akin to providing a video phone to all inmates.”

A technological solution requiring the human hand

According to the FCC, VRS is a form of Telecommunications Relay Service that enables persons with hearing disabilities who use American Sign Language to communicate with voice telephone users through video equipment rather than through typed text.

VRS provides people who are deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) with equal access to the public telephone network. The service is available for free to any qualifying deaf or HoH person using American Sign Language. The service requires a video terminal, a broadband Internet connection and an account with a residential VRS provider.

The residential VRS system enables a deaf person to communicate with a hearing telephone user via an American Sign Language interpreter. The interpreter is positioned in the communication path between the deaf person and the hearing person. On one side, the interpreter communicates with the deaf person using a video terminal. On the other side, the interpreter communicates with the hearing person via a telephone.

The VRS interpreter repeats exactly what was said by each party.

“The use of residential VRS in a jail or prison without a managed-access, front-end system introduces the potential for unrestricted illegal activity,” McWilson told Corrections1. “This includes, but is not limited to, gang coordination, taunting of witnesses, delivering contraband to inmates, planning escapes and arranging other serious crimes.”

McWilson said that even the simplest of common security practices implemented by Inmate Communication Services (ICS) telephone vendors for hearing inmate telephone calls cannot be implemented by residential VRS providers.

Per FCC rules and regulations, VRS providers are prohibited from:

  • Recording residential VRS/videophone calls;
  • Terminating a call;
  • Reporting any criminal activity that may have been said by a deaf prisoner.

VRS interpreters are, in effect, a confidential participant in all residential VRS calls, regardless of whether or not the interpreter recognized the conversation involved illegal actions.

Therefore, without a managed-access video relay front-end system, residential VRS calls from jails or prisons cannot be recorded, monitored or blocked.

“Without a front-end system in place for jail VRS calls, prisoners using residential VRS are able to easily make jail-to-jail calls without the knowledge of the jail administration,” McWilson said. “Without knowing these consequential security risks, jail administrators are rushing to install residential VRS solutions just to meet the court-mandated requirements for their deaf inmates, but unfortunately, residential VRS introduces an unsecure communication portal into their jail that is fraught with security risks. It is imperative for the safety of jail staff and reduction of inmate-generated video relay criminal activity, that residential VRS is augmented with a secure, managed-access, front-end system.”

The residential VRS system was developed to provide deaf individuals with unlimited, unrestricted and easy-to-use equal access to the telephone network.

According to McWilson, it was architected without consideration for the specialized security concerns addressed by prison voice systems. The following inherent security risks are introduced into a jail or prison when a residential VRS is introduced:

  • There is no inmate identifiable call history;
  • There is no method to restrict outbound telephone calls;
  • There is no method to restrict inbound telephone calls;
  • There is no method to restrict peer-to-peer video calls (such as jail-to-jail calls);
  • There is no method to block the prisoner from making an unlimited number of telephone calls;
  • VRS providers are not allowed to record calls;
  • There is no method to block the source of video messages;
  • There is no method to block the destination for video messages.

McWilson said a jail or prison can eliminate these eight critical residential VRS security risks by taking the following actions to secure video relay calls:

1. Utilize strategic VRS providers:

  • That are able to identify calls from prisoners;
  • Will enforce a one-call-per connection rule;
  • Only acquire VRS numbers from those strategic VRS providers;
  • Disable residential VRS video mail for deaf prisoners.

2. Install a VRS video recorder that captures video and audio from both parties and allows for call monitoring as VRS providers cannot record calls.

3. Install a secure front-end video relay system that:

  • Allows jail administrators to manage prisoner profiles;
  • Authorizes VRS calls per prisoner profile;
  • Blocks all incoming calls;
  • Selectively records calls based upon the jail administrators’ rules.

4. Use a video client that:

  • Requires each deaf prisoner to sign in using a facility-assigned profile instead of the profile provided by the residential VRS provider;
  • Authenticates prisoners at the secure front-end VRS ICS;
  • Limits deaf prisoners to one video call per sign in;
  • Supports maximum time limits per call;
  • Auto signs off on idle;
  • Notifies all parties that calls may be monitored and/or recorded.


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantees persons with disabilities equal access to any entity that receives federal financial assistance, either directly or indirectly. In addition, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extends these same rights to inmates in all state and local facilities. Under these two laws, the standards of accessibility are similar to ensure that equal communication access and functional equivalency will be provided to deaf inmates.

For the physical safety of the correctional officers who are charged with monitoring deaf inmates, as well as for the financial security of the institutions that house them, correctional leaders should consider looking carefully at intelligently updating obsolete technology, thereby preventing problems from arising.

Doug Wyllie is a senior contributor for Corrections1, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug hosts PoliceOne’s Policing Matters podcast.

Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie.

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