Heyer v. United States Bureau of Prisons, No. 19-7027 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Heyer, a Deaf individual who communicates in ASL, is civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person. In prison and while civilly committed, Heyer’s access to the Deaf community has dwindled. Detainees in Heyer’s Unit can communicate with the outside by writing letters, in-person visits, the prison email system, and a TTY machine for making calls under the supervision of a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff member to preapproved numbers. BOP also installed a videophone in Heyer's unit and contracted with a provider of SecureVRS services for calls to preapproved numbers, with monitoring. SecureVRS calls do not allow Heyer to call Deaf friends. All of the available means of communication are problematic because Heyer’s English skills are “novice low. ”An expert concluded that his reading and writing skills mimic those of a seven-year-old.
The district court held that the BOP’s refusal to allow Heyer to make point-to-point calls with other Deaf individuals did not violate his First Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit reversed. Heyer’s constitutional rights are not defined merely by his civil detainee status or his past conduct. They are also defined by his status as a Deaf individual cut off from his community in a manner more complete than even foreign language prisoners. The district court erred by crediting BOP testimony about the risks of point-to-point calls without considering testimony about safety features that have managed those risks for other forms of communication it makes available.