The Secret World of Deaf Prisoners

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 2:59 PM EDT

 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.

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The deaf face a nightmare when they fall into the criminal justice system. They live in a world apart to begin with; but in prison they are thrown into a dreaded new environment where they literally can’t understand the language of either their jailers or the other prisoners. When people who have never heard a spoken word try to speak, the sounds come out jumbled and weird—leading ill-informed jailers to think they are obstreperous or crazy. As a consequence, some deaf prisoners can end up in solitary.

I discovered numerous examples of abuses and violations of the rights of deaf prisoners as part of an ongoing investigative reporting project. But the most troubling discovery I made was how little has been done about the problem in the criminal justice system—and how little is known about it outside prison walls.

No one knows exactly how many deaf prisoners there are in the U.S. Efforts by psychologists and other experts to find out have been largely unsuccessful. With few exceptions—the state of Texas apparently being one—no one counts the deaf or hard of hearing in the prison population.

But according to two researchers, as many as one-third of the entire U.S. prison population of 1.7 million have difficulty hearing—with some of them being profoundly deaf. The researchers, Professor Katrina Miller of Emporia State University in Kansas—herself a former corrections officer—and McCay Vernon, a psychologist whose late wife was deaf and who has worked within the prison community for years, believe it is long past time to seek help for this ignored segment of prisoners. Almost two-thirds of deaf prisoners, according to some studies, are in jail for violent and often sexual offenses committed against children. (The deaf are themselves at increased risk for abuse as children, the researchers point out.)

A person is hard of hearing if he or she has a 50 percent loss of hearing in one ear. Prisoners who are illiterate as well as deaf are especially deprived when they find themselves in the criminal justice system. They seldom have been educated beyond second grade and, as a consequence, have trouble reading and writing. Because they are deaf and without competent interpreters, they can’t go to AA meetings or drug counseling or make it through educational programs.

The abuses begin as soon as a deaf prisoner enters the criminal justice system and faces accusers in court. Often the hard of hearing and deaf can’t hear the charges against them, don’t know what the trial is all about, don’t know why the guards are screaming at them, can’t hear bells or commands from others. If they are close enough to the judge and look hard at him, they can read his lips. But, as McCay Vernon points out, only 50 percent of spoken sounds can be translated into sign language.

On occasion, deaf persons will be given a court interpreter who knows sign language. But this can be a doubly frustrating experience: sign language can’t convey the legalistic, often arcane lingo used by defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges. Most deaf people don’t read lips. The idea they can hear normally, or at least hear enough to act as if they can hear normally, is a myth of the hearing world, Vernon points out.

Sign language is enriched by mime, hand-spelling, and cued speech (which is a combination of signs and lip movement). In prisons and jails around the country, there are few interpreters who are trained well enough in this form of communication. Often other deaf or hard-of-hearing prisoners are recruited to help, but just as often deaf prisoners are left with few resources when they are confronted with the pitfalls and crises that are tragically common in America's prisons.

One deaf prisoner wrote, for example, that when he sought help after a prison rape, the guards laughed at him. A hard-of-hearing inmate who requested a pair of headphones to listen to the radio was turned down by the warden, who said he had not filled out the papers correctly. A request for a vibrating alarm clock got a similar rejection.

When deaf inmates want to make a phone call using TTD—a method of typing out messages—the prison insists two guards must be in the room. To make matters worse, the deaf are restricted to the same amount of phone time as hearing prisoners, though it takes twice the time to type out the messages.

Such anecdotes illustrate that deaf prisoners are faced daily with violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates equal treatment for deaf and other disabled persons. There is even a provision under the Act to pay attorneys additional sums to bring cases to correct inequities suffered by deaf inmates—a provision which, like other parts of the act, is honored mostly in the breach.

Twitter for these people isn’t just a vehicle for social networking, but a lifesaving device to communicate with the hearing world.

Complicating this situation is the fact that the deaf community rarely goes to bat for peers who are in prison. As the mother of one deaf son, told me, “it makes them look bad.” Thus deaf prisoners are subject to a double isolation—from the prison community and from the larger community of their peers.

In a letter to a friend, one deaf prisoner wrote the following:

I have been lowered to nothing more than a beggar in order to stand up for something. I believe the deaf have a right too. But I tell you this…there is no help for us here…I am almost at the end of my rope and believe that before I submit this body to any form of sexual act in order to get legal work done, I will take my own life. There is no help for us here…Many nights I have stayed awake contemplating the end and only my fear in the Lord Jesus in not accepting me in heaven has kept me from that act.

Many many times deaf people raped and beat and no help from the officers. Hearing people steal our things…when we try to talk to officers, they just laugh. So hard for us. Many, many times I just want to die but have Jesus in [my] heart…Now one day at a time. Pray every day to help other deaf.

This letter is signed with the drawing of a small, round smiling face and the words, “Deaf and proud.”

A version of this story appeared on The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

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