A deaf man will receive a $250,000 settlement from the Arlington County Sheriff's Office after it failed to provide a sign language interpreter for him while he was jailed, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Friday.
The man, Abreham Zemedagegehu, has said he spent part of his six-week stay at the Arlington County Detention Facility in 2014 unaware of the charges against him. The Justice Department launched an investigation into Zemedagegehu's claim last year.
"I felt like I was losing my mind," Zemedagegehu said through an interpreter in an interview at his lawyer's office. "I thought Virginia would give me an interpreter and they said no. That's why I felt lost."
Zemedagegehu also said the jail failed provide a communications device to help him communicate with his lawyer and performed medical procedures on him without explaining them or getting his consent.
A native of Ethiopia, he can communicate in American Sign Language but is largely unable to communicate in written English.
Zemedagegehu sued the sheriff's office in federal court, saying his treatment failed to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Among the concerns raised in his lawsuit was the jail's reliance on teletypewriter devices to allow deaf inmates to communicate with people outside the jail. The sheriff's office has defended its use of the TTY machine, but Zemedagegehu's lawsuit said the device is useless for someone who can't read English and obsolete because videophones are now used predominantly in the deaf community.
Zemedagegehu's ordeal began Feb. 2, 2014, when he was arrested after being accused of stealing another man's iPad. He said he pleaded guilty to the charge because a plea bargain offered him a sentence of time served. Later, though, the man who accused him of the theft said he'd found the device and rescinded his accusation.
Under the settlement, the sheriff's office will pay $250,000 to Zemedagegehu, and must take steps to comply with the ADA. This includes appointing an ADA coordinator, providing ADA training to its staff, and ensuring that auxiliary aids and services are provided. The Justice Department said the sheriff's office has taken several steps to improve its ADA compliance even before finalizing the settlement agreement.
"People who are deaf or hard of hearing must be able to communicate clearly with law enforcement officials," said Tracy Doherty-McCormick, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a statement Friday. "Through this settlement agreement, the Arlington County Sheriff has taken important steps to ensure that the operations of the Arlington County Detention Facility are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act."