Arlington County Jail Under Federal Investigation After Deaf Inmate Complains

The Justice Department has launched an investigation of how the Arlington County jail cares for deaf inmates after complaints from an inmate that he was denied access to sign-language interpreters.

The investigation, which began in April and was revealed in court documents this week, follows a federal lawsuit by inmate Abreham Zemedagegehu, who said he spent part of his six-week stay at the jail unaware of the charges against him. He also alleged that the jail performed medical procedures on him without explaining them or getting his consent.

Zemedagegehu, a native of Ethiopia, can communicate in American Sign Language but is largely unable to communicate in written English.

The jail has defended its handling of deaf inmates. Maj. Susie Doyel, a spokeswoman for the Arlington County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, said the federal investigation is a result of a separate complaint Zemedagegehu filed with the Department of Justice alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She declined further comment on the case, because it is being litigated.

In court papers filed Monday in federal court in Alexandria, lawyers on both sides said the Justice Department has asked that the lawsuit be put on hold while the feds continue their investigation. Both sides say they will seek to settle the lawsuit during the interim.

Zemedagegehu's lawyer, Larry Tanenbaum, said he welcomes the Justice Department's intervention and "its willingness to work with the parties to forge a resolution of not only the issues pertaining to its investigation but also of the charges that Mr. Zemedagegehu has brought against the sheriff."

A judge earlier this year rejected a request from the county sheriff's office to have the case tossed out.

Among the concerns raised by Zemedagegehu in his lawsuit is 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 spent six weeks last year in the county jail on allegations that he stole another man's iPad. Zemedagegehu 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 rescinded his accusation.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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