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How prisons deny communication to incarcerated deaf people

June 11, 2018

The Daily Appeal

In Justice Today

More than 6 percent of people in prison nationwide reported having a hearing disability according to a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report. In California, a state that incarcerates among the largest numbers of deaf people of any prison system in the country, plaintiffs in a decades-long disability rights case allege that the department of corrections fails to provide appropriate accommodations. Specifically, the department puts prison programs necessary for release out of the reach of deaf participants; makes communication with family while incarcerated difficult; and expects people under parole supervision to attend meetings without access to interpreters. [Armstrong v. Brown]

In California, as in other states, completion of programs and classes can be a requirement for release—either under the state’s 2016 ballot initiative which expanded opportunities for early release or for release under parole supervision. In a statement filed last month in Armstrong v. Brown, attorneys from the Prison Law Office describe how the department regularly fails to secure interpreters’ services for prison programs—“including those which have been expressly recommended by the Board of Parole Hearings.” A direct consequence is that deaf people in California prisons are at “risk of serving longer prison sentences.” Mother Jones tells the story of a man denied release on parole in 2016. During his appearance before the parole board he was asked if he had been in any self-help programs. When he reported that he had but, because there was no interpreter present, he had been unable to follow the conversations, a parole commissioner blamed him for failing to participate in more programs. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]

For people who are released on parole, the corrections department insists that interpreter services are not necessarily needed for parole appointments. In one region that has 11 deaf people under supervision, interpreter services were requested only twice in a three-month period. [Armstrong v. Jones] In one case, this meant that between September and December 2017, a deaf man on parole did not have access to an interpreter for four out of five parole-mandated mental health appointments. He was rearrested shortly after, and his attorney has pointed to the failure to provide interpreter services as a contributing factor. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]

Across the country, state corrections departments have faced lawsuits over the conditions of confinement for deaf people in prison, according to a collaboration last year between the Marshall Project and Wired. Prisons fail to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for disciplinary hearings and doctor appointments, during vocational and educational programming, and even for substance abuse treatment. Orders and announcements in prisons are spoken and unaccompanied by visual aids. Some people report being separated from other deaf people because guards worry about not being able to follow their communication. The result for deaf people in prison, according to the head of the ASL department at Northeastern University, is years or decades of “communicative solitary confinement.” [Christie Thompson / Wired & The Marshall Project]

A case in Washington, D.C., a few years ago exemplified the failure of prisons to adequately accommodate incarcerated deaf people. In 2016, a federal jury awarded $70,000 in damages to William Pierce. Pierce, a deaf man, served a 60-day sentence in 2012. He alleged that prison officials, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, failed to provide “an effective means of receiving or imparting information at various critical points during his period of incarceration, including medical appointments, rehabilitative classes, and meetings with prison officials.” [Spencer S. Hsu / Washington Post] In her opinion largely granting Pierce’s motion for summary judgment, the judge found that the prison staff never assessed Pierce’s need for accommodation or determined what assistance he would need to communicate and “assumed that lip-reading and exchanging written notes would suffice.” The result was that Pierce “was forced to serve his prison time in abject isolation, generally unaware of what was going on around him, and unable to communicate effectively with prison officials, prison doctors, his counselor, his teacher, or his fellow inmates.” [Pierce v. District of Columbia]

In addition to being cut off from communication within prison, those who are deaf face barriers in their communications with family and friends outside. Most prisons use outdated TTY (also known as TDD) systems that are expensive and extremely slow, with a laborious system for typing out messages. Outside of prisons most deaf people and their families use videophones, so many families do not have the TTY system necessary to receive a call from these systems in prisons. The volunteer director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), which advocates for deaf people in prison, told the Marshall Project last year that, “most deaf detainees and prisoners have absolutely no telecommunications access.” [Christie Thompson / Wired-Marshall Project]

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