In the 1970s, an antiwar demonstrator found himself at New York City’s Rikers Island jail facility for a couple of months on a disorderly conduct charge. The demonstrator, who happened to be a friend of mine, met a handful of young men from the Bronx in his unit who were deaf.
They were having trouble communicating with anyone but themselves. My friend knew a little sign language and, after a few conversations, discovered they were illiterate. With the idea of helping them improve their communication skills, he asked prison authorities for permission to order books on sign language from the publisher. The wardens refused, saying that they did not want anyone in that prison using a “language” they could not understand.
Things may have changed a little for the better since then. But not by much.
I first wrote about the deaf in the late 1960s in the New Republic and so I know something of the background which is what really informs this article. While researching stories about solitary confinement at Angola Prison for Mother Jones, I came upon an article in Prison Legal News about widespread violations against deaf prisoners. Remembering the people and culture I had caught a glimpse of in the 60s, I got in touch with the article’s author, McCay Vernon. Luckily he remembered my earlier writing, and promptly agreed to help me.
The letters quoted below are from deaf prisoners to different people in the free world, who are seeking to help them, to advocate their cause. I have disguised the advocates, prisoners and prisons to keep the inmates from getting reprisals—reprisals which they fear on a daily basis. You have to remember that a deaf person can’t hear the chatter among other inmates, can’t hear the person sneaking up behind, is unintelligible in his cries for help during a rape.