Abreham Zemedagegehu was held in jail for six weeks in a Virginia prison without an interpreter and not knowing why he was being held in the first place, the Associated Press reports.
It was alleged that Zemedagegehu, who is deaf, stole an iPad, which its owner later found. For that accusation he spent more than a month in jail, unable to communicate with his jailers. He describes a horrifying experience during which he feared for his safety and medical procedures were performed on him without his consent, the newswire notes.
"I felt like I was losing my mind," Zemedagegehu told AP through an interpreter. "I thought Virginia would give me an interpreter and they said no. That's why I felt lost."
He has filed a federal lawsuit against the Arlington County sheriff, claiming that he was not treated according to the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Zemedagegehu was born in Ethiopia but is a U.S. citizen. According to the report, he grew up using Ethiopian Sign Language but has learned American Sign Language, too. His command of written English is rudimentary, according to AP.
His case began in February 2014 when Zemedagegehu, who is also homeless, sought refuge at Reagan National Airport for a warm place to rest. Officers from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority soon arrested him, accusing him of stealing a man's iPad.
Zemedagegehu told AP that he requested an interpreter to explain what was going on but was taken to an Arlington jail instead, where he was booked. He told the news service that he did not understand what was taking place and said that during the process, there was someone speaking to him on a video screen whom he could not understand.
Zemedagegehu was also subjected to medical screening and said that he was given forms to sign. Not knowing what the forms were, he refused to sign them. Still, he claims, a needle was stuck into his arm without an explanation. It turned out to be a tuberculosis test, to which he had a bad reaction, AP notes.
Only two days after his arrest did Zemedagegehu finally understand what was going on when he was presented at an arraignment and a court interpreter was present.
In March, Zemedagegehu accepted a plea deal, pleading guilty to lesser misdemeanor charges for the time he already served, although he still insisted that he did not steal the iPad.
His public defender filed a motion to have the conviction overturned, accusing prosecutors of withholding evidence that the man had found his missing iPad before the guilty plea. According to AP, the judge did not overturn the conviction because the appeal was filed too late.
A spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, Maj. Susie Doyel, told AP that many deputies at the jail were competent in American Sign Language, although she did not comment on any specific charges. Doyel did concede, however, that accommodating a deaf inmate is sometimes more difficult if the inmate cannot communicate in written English.
"They're doing this 25 years after the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed. They know better," Zemedagegehu insisted. He does not understand why it was so hard for him to get an interpreter.
Read more at the Huffington Post.