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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.

Pat Bliss and Felix at PCI June 5, 2010Pat Bliss and Felix at Polk Correctional institution, June 5, 2010 Courtesy Pat Bliss.

Behind his round glasses, Felix's face is gaunt but expressive, and his voice contains a note of desperation. He speaks and signs simultaneously, with Pat acting as our mutual translator. Felix explains that his situation has been getting worse. He was removed from a prison where he had a small community of deaf acquaintances and sent to a series of other facilities before landing here. Shortly before the move, he'd seen his daughter, now 30, for the first time since she was six months old—she lives in Florida, but too far away to visit regularly. At Jefferson, he's housed apart from other deaf prisoners and lacks access to sign language interpreters. He lives in fear of offending fellow inmates by inadvertently ignoring them; shortly after arriving here he got into a fight and ended up in solitary.

I ask him about the rape. It happened in December 2010, he says, when two men assaulted him in a shower at the Department of Corrections' Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. He reported it and for weeks afterward spent hours each day crouching in terror against his cell door, trying to decipher noises that might announce another would-be assailant. He was later transferred to the Madison Correctional Institution, where he attempted to hang himself with a sheet. The staff put him on suicide watch, Felix says, leaving him naked in a cell for six days. (Suicidal inmates, clarifies a prison official, are clad in a nonflammable, untearable paper "shroud.")

In theory, Felix could file a civil rights lawsuit, but the Clinton-era Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it extraordinarily difficult for individual prisoners to bring a federal case. Class actions in New York and Virginia have resulted in somewhat improved services for deaf prisoners in those states, and there are suits pending against the Illinois corrections department and the federal Bureau of Prisons. A Florida lawsuit aimed at winning deaf inmates access to a device that would let them watch TV was tossed recently after prison officials argued that there were not enough plaintiffs to justify a class action. (In a deposition, an ADA compliance officer for the Department of Corrections admitted she had no idea how many deaf prisoners there were in the system; a DOC spokeswoman later told me that only 74 inmates were receiving services.)

Beyond trying to improve Felix's lot in prison, Pat concedes, few options remain. She's exhausted every angle in his criminal case. In theory, Gov. Rick Scott could grant him a pardon, but Scott, a tea party champion elected in 2010, has generally moved to make the clemency process more arduous. Felix will be eligible for parole in 2024, at age 62, but even then his odds will be abysmal. Only 50 Florida prisoners were paroled last year; in fact, the state eliminated parole for virtually all new convictions in 1995.

A few months after our interview, Felix was moved again, this time to Tomoka Correctional Institution, where there are deaf inmates and some programs available. He's less isolated now but only slightly less fearful. "Many, many times, deaf people raped and beat and no help from the officers," Felix wrote in a letter to McCay Vernon. "Many times I just want to die but have Jesus in heart...Pray every day to help other deaf."

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