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The Silent Treatment

Imagine serving decades in prison for a crime your sibling framed you for. Now imagine doing it while profoundly deaf.

Felix 1999Felix in 1999 Courtesy Pat Bliss.

PAT IS A PETITE FORMER UNITED Airlines flight attendant—once widowed and twice divorced—who lives alone in Virginia, in a big house decorated with teddy bears and wallpaper with pictures of deer. Her office is crowded with files containing Felix's case documents, and its walls are adorned with photos of him. His only personal possessions, his early photo albums, are displayed on a shelf.

In the early 1990s, after Pat's second husband died of cancer, she was at loose ends for a time. But she'd found a new calling when a woman in her Bible study "spoke out the message" that the Lord was sending Pat to work among prisoners. She attended one of the weekend trainings of Chuck Colson—the Watergate conspirator turned prison minister—and was soon working for defense lawyers as a liaison to local jails. In October 1996, she received a package from an inmate who was helping Felix with sign interpretation. It included court documents and a draft motion by a fellow prisoner hoping to reverse Felix's conviction.

Reading over the papers, "I was appalled at the injustice," Pat recalls. "I felt I had to do something." Before long, she was preparing motions aimed at overturning Felix's conviction on the grounds that he couldn't understand the testimony at his own trial. But it turned out Florida law gives inmates only two years to file such motions, and Felix was nearly 12 years past that deadline. He also missed the cutoff for filing a federal habeas petition.

When his motion was denied, Felix "sat there in that box," Pat tells me tearfully as we sit on her living room sofa. "He was shackled. And he mouthed to me, 'Why? I am innocent.'" She continues: "I went to the jail after that and I told him, 'Felix, I am sticking with you till the very end. I will be that mother you don't have, that sister you don't have.' And he's called me Mom ever since."

Laura Rovner, a former staff attorney with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), told me Felix might have convinced a judge to toss his conviction were it not for the missed filing deadlines. After all, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandates that any entity receiving federal money have an effective communications system for the deaf, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically requires state and local agencies to make sure a disabled person can communicate as effectively as anyone else. "It is hard to think of a situation where that is more critical than where somebody is being tried for a serious crime," Rovner says.

But institutions of justice "frequently do not honor the letter and spirit" of these laws, says Howard Rosenblum, who heads the NAD. "The challenge has been to actually litigate against every law enforcement agency, lawyer, court, and prison that violate the requirements." The Justice Department could force state and federal prisons to comply, Rosenblum adds, but it has failed to do so. (The DOJ didn't respond to my requests for comment.)

As a result, disabled people who land in the slammer face what David Fathi, head of the ACLU's National Prison Project, calls "a nightmare of vulnerability, abuse, and exclusion from the most basic prison programs and services," adding, "I think prisoners who are deaf or blind are often the worst off of all."

Specifically, Rosenblum says, deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates are often "unable to understand instructions of guards, to take classes that make them eligible for early release, to learn skills, to know when meals are announced, to know when visitors are here to see them, to watch television, to use the telephone, to express grievances, to communicate with counselors or doctors, and to defend against claims of misconduct."

Jack Cowley, a former Oklahoma warden who serves on the advisory board of the National Institute of Corrections (which provides federal support to corrections agencies) tends to agree. While most prison officials would say, "'Oh, yes, we make accommodation,'" he says, "there is still this sort of deliberate indifference when it comes to back in the cellblocks." Most state facilities, Cowley adds, try to house their deaf inmates together for mutual support, "and hopefully some staff member will find some compassion and look after them." But "there's not a lot of sympathy in the halls."

In 2003, Pat approached the Florida courts with fresh evidence: an affidavit from Frank, who, apparently feeling remorseful, conceded that Felix was innocent. Felix had received it back in 1989 and given it to a jailhouse law clerk, who misfiled it as a habeas petition. When it was returned for refiling, Felix, flummoxed by the legal jargon, thought he'd been denied. Pat only discovered the affidavit years later while going through Felix's papers.

Frank became the star witness at an evidentiary hearing the court finally granted in 2006, after a three-year delay. Pat had collected affidavits from five inmates who'd known Frank at various prisons. All swore that Frank had told them he'd pinned the killing on his kid brother in the hope of sidestepping death row. On the witness stand, Frank admitted the same: "He had nothing to do with it," he testified. "It was me and Raymond Stanley that did it."

Nearly a year later, the judge denied Felix's motion for retrial or release, saying he couldn't discern what was true.

ON A SUNNY SUMMER morning, after driving all the way from Virginia to Florida the previous day, Pat picks me up at the Jacksonville airport in her red Nissan Xterra. Our destination is the Jefferson Correctional Institution, two hours due west, a cluster of unremarkable sand-colored structures with dark, slanted roofs. When we arrive, an officer escorts us to a building where an assistant warden offers up his office for my interview with Felix. About 10 feet off stands a man with short salt-and-pepper hair. "Hi, Felix," I call out, before reminding myself aloud, "Oh, right, he can't hear me."

"Oh, Garcia?" says the warden. "He can hear."

In fact, the prison's medical staff has deemed Felix profoundly deaf, with hearing loss exceeding 90 decibels. So he can hear, in some muffled fashion, the sound of a car horn, a Harley-Davidson, or a jet taking off, but not human voices. His prison-issued hearing aid merely amplifies the institutional din, Felix says. But because he tries so hard to accommodate and understand, guards think he hears more than he lets on.

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