Voting rights, freedom of speech, and classroom prayer-these are the controversies that usually come to mind when people think of civil liberty lawsuits. Far, far down the list of things that come to mind, or possibly not on the list at all, is hearing aids. Most people wouldn’t readily think to associate legal action over civil liberties with auditory enhancement devices. In an Ohio prison, however, an inmate is filing suit against the correctional facility, claiming that they have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment in the eighth amendment to the United States Constitution.
James Handwork lost his ability to hear three decades ago while serving in the US Army. He served as a paratrooper, and the years of exposure to loud noise from airplane engines deafened one ear completely and left the other badly damaged. Without hearing aids, his auditory perception of the world around him is akin to listening to the world from inside a brass bell or hearing faint echoes inside a concrete tunnel. He has used an inner-ear device to assist him since 1986. The ear damage also affected his balance, so he suffers from bouts of vertigo.
In 2002, Handwork went to prison for homicide. His hearing aids were given to him in 2003 and have not been replaced since then. One of them is completely broken, and the other is almost functionally useless. He has been almost without sound for years.
The average lifespan of conventional audial devices is five to seven years, and Handwork alleges in his lawsuit that he has been almost totally deaf since 2009. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has a policy that they will replace one, but not both, of his hearing aids. Mr. Handwork is being represented by a prominent civil liberties organization that alleges the prison system’s policy is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the act, all people must be provided equal access to the services, programs, and activities afforded to others similarly situated. As a public entity, the prison is required to abide by this law. Handwork’s complaint also alleges that the department’s policy of applying a “one size fits all” replacement is a violation of the 8th amendment because it amounts to an arbitrarily cruel and unusual punishment. The case is currently pending in U.S. District Court in northern Ohio.
There is an extra wrinkle that could possibly give this case broader ramifications: the prison in question is wholly owned by a private company under contract with the state. Ohio is the first state to turn over prison control completely to private enterprises. For civil liberties groups that ardently object to privatized incarceration, this case may be the canary in the coal mine; if relatively small policies like this are allowed to go unchecked, they argue, it will slowly erode constitutional protections.