[Editor's note: This story first ran online in December, 2011. This is the updated version that appears in the March/April 2012 issue of the magazine.]
"THIS IS A COLLECT CALL from a correctional institution," says the robotic female voice at the other end of the line. After a moment of confusion, I realize it must be Felix Garcia, whom I'd visited several weeks earlier in a northern Florida prison. He's serving a life sentence on a robbery-murder charge for which his own brother now admits to framing him.
Felix is deaf, which is why he's using a TTY operator. I'd sent him a card for his 50th birthday, a picture of flowers and some lame words of encouragement. Now he's calling to thank me and to plead for help. Four of his fellow deaf inmates have tried to commit suicide, he explains; one somehow managed to swallow a razor blade. It sounds like Felix is thinking about doing the same. "Please," the voice intones, "will you phone my lawyers? I can't get through to them."
Felix lost most of his hearing when he was still a kid. For most of his three decades behind bars, starting at age 19, he—like most deaf prisoners in America—has been housed in the general population with few services for his disability. He's been raped, targeted by other prisoners, and ignored or taunted, he says, by guards who think he's faking. Last year, he tried to hang himself.
"Felix," I plead awkwardly. "You are not going to kill yourself."
"I won't do it,'' he says finally. "I have Jesus."
I repeat: "Do not kill yourself."
"Yes, sir." The call cuts off.
After a few minutes, I pick up the phone and call Pat Bliss, a 69-year-old paralegal who for the past 15 years has served as Felix's advocate, crafting defense strategies, writing motions and briefs, and helping usher his case through the courts. The lawyer who helps Pat with the case calls her "an angel." Which is something Felix needs more than anyone I've ever met.
Felix grew up in Tampa, one of six children in a working-class Cuban American family. Almost from birth he suffered from severe ear infections. He struggled with headaches and earaches and often missed school. He would stuff cotton balls in his ears, a former schoolmate recalls, to prevent pus from leaking out.
A good-looking kid with a sweet demeanor, he managed to make it through school by getting girls to tutor him—or help him cheat. Still, by high school Felix was having difficulty understanding people even when they spoke up, and he struggled to speak clearly as he lost the ability to hear his own voice. "I hear sounds, and I hear voices," he would later tell a judge. "But I can't make out the words unless I am looking at the person." It felt, he noted, like being underwater.
Felix Garcia celebrating his GED in 1984 Courtesy Pat Bliss.
After graduating, Felix had a run-in with the law for passing a bad check. (He got probation.) He worked as a brick mason, and when he was 19, he and his girlfriend, Michelle, had a baby girl they named Candise. Occasionally he would hang around with his siblings, some of whom had gotten involved, as he puts it, with "the street."
On August 4, 1981, his brother Frank, his sister Tina, and her boyfriend, Ray Stanley, took Felix to a pawnshop. Frank had a ring he wanted to hock. Saying he didn't have ID on him, he asked Felix to sign the pawn ticket. The ring, it turned out, belonged to a man who'd been murdered the day before at a motel. Six days later police, having traced the ticket, arrested Felix at Tina and Ray's house.
Felix insisted he knew nothing about the crime. Michelle and her mother later testified that he was with them at the time of the killing. But Frank, who knew the victim and had left his prints at the scene, fingered Felix as the killer and was convicted of armed robbery and second-degree murder—a lesser charge than he might have faced. Tina, who married Ray shortly after the arrest, also agreed to testify against her younger brother.
At trial, in 1983, a doctor declared that Felix had severe hearing loss—he still kept cotton in his ears to stanch the pus. The court issued him a hearing aid and a loudspeaker, neither of which helped him discern speech. Felix tried to read lips, but he was seated far from the witness box, and the prosecutor often faced in the wrong direction. For the most part, he had no idea what was going on.
IT'S HARD TO KNOW how many deaf people are locked up, since prison authorities don't generally bother to keep count. While studying Texas prisons a decade ago, Katrina Miller, a corrections official turned academic researcher, discovered that a whopping 30 percent of the inmates met the clinical threshold for "hard of hearing." In any case, the experts I spoke with say Felix's experience is not unusual.
Deaf inmates face "a nightmare of vulnerability, abuse, and exclusion from the most basic prison programs."
On paper, anyone with a disability is legally protected against discrimination. In practice, institutions of justice are often ill equipped or disinclined to deal with special needs. "Deaf people have a hard time," says retired McDaniel College psychology professor McCay Vernon, an authority on the deaf who is familiar with Felix's case. "The courts—judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers—just don't understand what they're up against. Turning up the sound system doesn't mean the defendant better understands what's going on. He just hears more noise." Courtroom sign interpreters often can't keep pace with proceedings, Vernon adds, and many deaf people simply lack the vocabulary to understand. "Their ability to read can lag far behind hearing people."
Perusing the trial transcript years later, Pat asked Felix why he'd been so quick to answer "yes" to one question after another. "If I say no, they're going to think I'm stupid," Felix replied. "Plus I wanted to get off the stand and go home." By the time the trial began, he'd already been in jail for two years.
In July 1983, Felix was convicted on the basis of his siblings' testimony and the signed pawn ticket—the only physical evidence against him. He received a life sentence for first-degree murder and a concurrent 99 years for armed robbery and was placed in a maximum-security lockup. He and Michelle parted ways, and he never saw her again. His mother visited a few times, but then his parents wrote Felix a letter saying they were moving to Tennessee and that he shouldn't look for them if he ever got out. By 1987, when he finally got an operation to take care of the pus drainage, Felix was living in a kind of sensory solitary confinement—until Pat Bliss found him.