CLEVELAND, Ohio — A hearing-impaired inmate serving 15-to-life for a 2002 Portage County killing filed suit against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, saying that the department’s refusal to replace his hearing aids is a safety risk.
James Handwork, 55, is serving his sentence at the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed suit on his behalf on Tuesday in federal court in Cleveland.
The lawsuit says that an audiologist hired by the prison determined that Handwork’s hearing aids are worn out and obsolete. They were given to him in 2003. One is completely broken, and the other is “barely functional,” the lawsuit says.
Prison officials have refused to replace both hearing aids and said they would only give him one new one, the ACLU says. The officials told Handwork that the corrections department’s policy only requires staff to ensure that an inmate can hear from one ear.
The lawsuit says that Handwork’s hearing is so poor that he cannot identify where a sounds is coming from or communicate effectively with prisoners or prison staff. He can’t even hear fire alarms.
“Without the ability to hear from both ears, Mr. Handwork feels like he is ‘living in a Mason Jar’ or in a ‘tunnel with echoes,'” the lawsuit says. “Having only one functioning hearing aid in causes him to experience vertigo, so he cannot walk in a straight line.”
The lawsuit says that the prison system is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and Handwork’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
The ACLU is asking a judge to issue an injunction requiring the prison to give Handwork new hearing aids and to change their policy to accommodate people who are hard of hearing.
It is also asking for the system to pay Handwork an unnamed amount in damages and attorney’s fees.
The case is assigned to Chief U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr.
A request for comment left with the corrections department was not immediately returned.
Handwork was convicted of murder in 2002 for stabbing Lasonya Young after leaving with her from a bar in Alliance. Her body was found near the Berlin Reservoir the next day.
The suit says Handwork’s hearing was damaged by loud airplane engines when he served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army in the 1980s. He has worn hearing aids since 1986.
It says he went through the prison system’s grievance policy and that his complaint was denied.
The ACLU partly attributes Handwork’s situation to Ohio’s decision to sell a state prison to a private company, according to a news release. The prison is owned by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, which also owns the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a federal facility in Youngstown.
“Problems like this are made worse when private companies are profiting off of incarcerated people,” Mike Brickner, the senior policy director of the ACLU of Ohio, said in the release. “When a private corporation puts its bottom line above the safety, security, and medical needs of individuals whose lives are entrusted to the state, prisoners, prison workers, and taxpayers all suffer.”
A call left for the ACLU’s legal director was not immediately returned.