In July, Tikesha Phillips pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in Chesapeake and was sentenced to five days in jail, to be served on weekends.
The judge recommended the Sheriff’s Office consider her for its “weekend day” program, which allows people to serve their time during daytime hours on Saturdays and Sundays, rather than sleeping in a jail cell.
Phillips, who is deaf, took her aunt Robin Jones with her that month when she went to be screened for the program by the Sheriff’s Office.
Jones said she got a call later that day. She doesn’t recall whether it was someone from the Sheriff’s Office or the court, but Jones said the caller told her Phillips had been denied participation in the program because she’s deaf.
Phillips said she felt like she was being discriminated against, and she worried for her safety if she had to stay in jail overnight since she can’t hear people coming up behind her.
Her lawyer and two aunts — Jones and Shelia Bell — pushed back.
And the jail has reversed course: Phillips will now be allowed to serve her sentence during the day on weekends, beginning next month, according to interviews and court documents.
“We weren’t trying to get her out of being punished,” Jones said. “… The opportunity was taken away from her because of her disability.”
Added Bell: “She just wants the same opportunity as anyone else.”
In a letter earlier this month to Phillips’ public defender, Robin Winn, a first sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office wrote that Phillips initially was denied participation in the weekend day program by medical staff “due to her safety and security and her medical condition.”
Phillips was later approved “after further consideration,” according to the letter, which was filed in General District Court.
“She will be given different tasks on the program to complete due to her condition,” the letter says.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan said that after one of Phillips’ aunts contacted his office this month, staff looked into her case, and Phillips was “immediately” put on the program.
He said there was no legitimate reason for her to be denied participation and said there had been “communication issues” within his office. O’Sullivan said he couldn’t discuss Phillips’ medical screening because of federal medical privacy laws. But he said that after speaking with his staff and reviewing records, he hadn’t seen any evidence to confirm Phillips was initially denied because she’s deaf.
“The bottom line is, ultimately as the sheriff, I’m responsible for who goes on my programs. I would never deny somebody who is hearing impaired from being on my weekend program,” O’Sullivan said.
About 55 to 70 people participate in the program each weekend, and they’re assigned different tasks based on their abilities, O’Sullivan said. The work includes a range of jobs, such as picking up trash or minimal landscaping outside schools, city buildings and public parks, he said.
O’Sullivan said a specific job hasn’t yet been assigned for Phillips, who will begin serving her weekend time Nov. 2. He said staff will communicate with her in writing and ensure she’s safe and secure.
Phillips pleaded guilty to her charge July 8. A handwritten note filed in court and dated July 22, two weeks later, says she “doesn’t qualify for wkend [sic] day program.”
Her lawyer filed a motion for reconsideration with the court two days later, records show.
Winn points to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Code of Federal Regulations, which prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities. He said his client is otherwise able to do the work: “I just don’t see any reason to not include her.”
At a hearing earlier this month, General District Judge Michael Katchmark amended the disposition in Phillips’ case. Court records from that date note the jail didn’t authorize Phillips for the weekend program and that she would begin serving five days in jail starting in December.
Bell said that’s when she called the Sheriff’s Office directly to explain the situation. Within a few days, she said, she heard back that her niece had been accepted after all.
“Once they heard the story,” Bell said, “there was no problem after that.”
Winn said he spoke with a first sergeant at the Sheriff’s Office who worked the case “up the chain” and got Phillips approved. He said he appreciates the efforts of the sheriff’s staff.
Speaking through Bell, who served as a sign language interpreter, Phillips said she just wants to be treated like everyone else: “Equal and fair.”
Bell said she hopes her niece’s case might help others.
“How many other people are sitting (in a jail) because they don’t have anyone to speak up for them?” she asked.