Deaf SCI inmate loses bid for services

Robert Ovens

Robert Ovens

DOVER — A deaf inmate’s appeal for equal accommodations under law while incarcerated was denied in Delaware Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Robert Ovens, held at Sussex Correctional Institution, challenged an earlier Superior Court ruling that prisons were not places of public accommodation, thus limiting his ability to communicate by telephone while incarcerated.

The Supreme Court found that a prison does not meet the core definition of a place of public accommodation as “any establishment which caters to or offers goods or services of facilities to, or solicits patronage from, the general public.

“The definition includes state agencies, local government agencies, and state-funded agencies performing public functions.”

Mr. Ovens was housed at SCI three separate times between May 12, 2010 and May 1, 2013, and filed a complaint with the Delaware Human Relations Commission regarding accommodations there.

According to court papers, the Commission held by a 2 to 1 vote that prisons did fall under the Delaware Equal Accommodations Law on Dec. 16, 2014 and subsequently awarded Ovens damages, attorney’s fees and other costs.

“The (Commission) majority found that the Equal Accommodations Law was violated because Owens had to wait additional periods of time to use the text telephone, and the DOC failed to provide him with an interpreter for his educational programs and his classification review,” the Supreme Court noted in the nine-page decision.

“The dissenting Commission member concluded that the Commission did not have subject matter jurisdiction over Ovens’ complaint because a prison is not a place of public accommodation.”

The decision was reversed in Superior Court, and Ovens then took the matter to Supreme Court.

While state-funded agencies fall under the law, the Supreme Court reasoned that “A prison like SCI is inherently different from a park or museum, in that a prison is not designed to solicit or cater to the general public for its entertainment and recreational value. …”

The DOC is a state agency, not designed to provide inmate goods and services to the public, the Supreme Court reasoned but exists to “provide for the treatment, rehabilitation, and restoration of offenders as useful, law-abiding citizens within the community,” according to Delaware Code.

Text telephone access

According to the Court, Owens “communicates primarily through American Sign Language and requires special accommodations, such as a text telephone device when making telephone calls.”

Owens alleged that access to the text telephone was either limited or denied, and he was required to “request permission to use the text telephone by submitting a counselor’s slip, while other inmates had free access to the telephones during their recreational periods.

“Additionally, Ovens alleged that the DOC and Warden (G.R.) Johnson did not accommodate his deafness when they failed to provide him with an interpreter for his anger management and substance abuse classes, and for his classification meetings.”

When the Commission first dismissed his complaint as not in its jurisdiction, Owens appealed to Superior Court, which remanded it for further explanation. Superior Court later ruled in Short v. Delaware that prisons were not places of public accommodation, followed by the Commission’s decision that the DOC violated Delaware Code.

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