What is Life Like for Deaf People in Prison?

A row of people speaking at a federal panel, including Talia Lewis

Talila Lewis, center, speaking to the FCC about the rights of deaf people in prison.

We’ve reached a critical moment in our history. As we incarcerate more people than ever before, we can no longer put off having honest conversations about the effects of police brutality and abuse of people in prison. We owe it to ourselves to seek out greater understanding of all the ways the criminal justice system can fail, harm, and murder its citizens. One person doing crucial work in this field is activist and attorney Talila A. Lewis, the founder and executive director of HEARD: Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf. I recently asked Lewis a few questions about the issues, misunderstandings, and sometimes grave abuses deaf and hard of hearing people face within the criminal justice system—and what all Americans can do to help.

SARAH MARSHALL: What motivated you to found HEARD?

TALILA LEWIS: My journey into the world of deaf wrongful conviction began during a 2007 internship when I happened upon a case of possible deaf wrongful conviction. Soon thereafter, people began to bring me other cases that were strikingly similar.  I began to investigate these cases on my own while trying to locate organizations and attorneys that would pursue these cases. Because none of the prisons housing these individuals had videophones, I would visit these individuals in prison and they would share stories of horrendous abuse.  Conditions were so bad that they requested that despite their innocence, I provide advocacy to address the day-to-day conditions they faced.  I struggled mightily to locate culturally competent attorneys with the requisite knowledge and resources to take on both the wrongful conviction cases and the prison condition cases.  The barriers that I encountered investigating innocence cases as a mere concerned citizen and finding organizational support for this population led me to law school and to create HEARD.  Our first large project was to  create a national database of deaf and deaf-blind prisoners and to begin surveying them to illuminate issues that have gone unaddressed for decades.  

Americans are talking more these days about our judicial system and coming to grips with its flaws. What unique problems do you see deaf and hard of hearing people face in the American judicial system, and how can people in the hearing world work to understand and help combat these problems?

 Yes, while many have begun the important dialogue about the harm visited upon so many communities and society writ large by our justice system, there is very little attention given to the injustices visited upon people with disabilities and deaf people by this system.  And yet, people with disabilities are the most susceptible to unjust encounters within our justice system and represent the largest minority group within our prisons.  We know that, annually, more than half of the people killed by law enforcement are people with mental illness. People who are deaf, diabetic, epileptic, and those with intellectual or developmental disabilities are assaulted and killed by officers who mistake their behavior as “threatening” or “noncompliant.” Our jails and prisons are quite literally overflowing with people with disabilities.

It is impossible to address the problem of mass incarceration without addressing the systematic failure to provide equal access to justice for people with disabilities and people who are deaf, deaf-blind, deaf-disabled, and hard of hearing.

Long-standing federal disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, guarantee equal access for people with disabilities in justice, legal and corrections settings. Federal, state and local agencies with oversight and enforcement authority must ensure that these laws are being followed. We also need to see disability solidarity within all civil and disability rights organizations, such that civil rights organizations prioritize disability justice and disability rights organizations prioritize addressing oppressions experienced by multiply marginalized people with disabilities and people who are deaf. Finally, we need to see an intentional infusion of people with disabilities and deaf people into education, justice, legal and corrections professions to ensure that there is disability and deaf cultural competency within these spheres that are known to serve as the gateway into & out of prison.

quote: prisons are a feminist issue

What kind of access does the average deaf or hard of hearing person in prison have to adequate interpreters?

Most deaf, deaf-blind, deaf-disabled, and hard of hearing prisoners have absolutely no access to qualified interpreters or any other communication aids as required by federal disability rights laws.

As a result, it is not uncommon for deaf prisoners not to have access to programs, communication, or medical and mental health services.  This results in deaf people spending more time in prison and having higher recidivism rates, simply because prisons are failing to provide equal access. 

These conditions are so distressingly common that advocates (and even judges) refer to deaf prisoners’ experience as a “prison within a prison.”  This prolonged communication deprivation leads to mental health conditions and irreversible loss of communication and socialization abilities similar to those found in individuals who have spent time in solitary confinement.  Hearing prisoners report that deaf prisoners have been called “the walking dead” because they are so susceptible to violence in prisons where most of the information needed to survive and protect a prisoner is auditory and thus not accessible. 

Some prisons also allow prisoners and corrections professionals to try to interpret for deaf prisoners despite these individuals having little or no knowledge of sign language and despite the fact that use of unqualified interpreters is both dangerous and a direct violation of federal disability rights law. 

Many prisons have rules that deaf prisoners can only have one hearing aid even if they need two. Other prisons refuse to provide batteries or limit the number of batteries a deaf prisoner can have to as few as two per month. Deaf prisoners report keeping non-powered hearing aids on to try to deter abuse by hearing prisoners who wrongly assume that hearing aids ensure that a person can hear.  Deaf prisoners who use this tactic are still at risk because of the same incorrect assumption by corrections officers who harshly punish deaf prisoners for not responding to verbal orders.

Many departments of corrections ban sign language because corrections professionals incorrectly view sign language as a form of gang signs.  This results in deaf prisoners being purposefully separated from other deaf prisoners even when they are housed at the same prison, and prevents deaf prisoners from supporting other deaf prisoners. 

On its website, HEARD describes “correcting and preventing deaf wrongful convictions” as one of its primary goals. What do you see as the primary issues that lead to these wrongful convictions? What structural changes can the judicial system make in order to prevent them? 

Though rarely discussed, deaf people and people with disabilities often are wrongfully convicted because of lack of access to officers, attorneys and the courts.  I have worked on more than fifteen cases of possible deaf wrongful conviction.  The majority of these cases share uncanny similarities in at least two respects: 1) Police departments failed to provide qualified sign language interpreters or other communication access during interrogations or communication with deaf individuals and 2) Detectives, attorneys, and judges failed to provide access to justice by refusing to use language access services or to perform even the most basic due diligence regarding deaf culture and communication.

Many deaf individuals in the United States use American Sign Language as a first or only language. American Sign Language is a unique language, with its own grammar, syntax and structure. Similar to native Spanish-speakers, some deaf people may be Limited- or Non-English Proficient.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that police departments and attorneys provide sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids to ensure that communication between the deaf person and the justice professional is effective.  We have found, however, that there is a lack of deaf cultural competency and a lack of awareness about obligations pursuant to federal disability rights laws on the part of law enforcement and attorneys nationwide.  The results are tragic.  Deaf people who never should have been arrested, who then had no access to their attorneys, have been held for extended periods of time in our jails and prisons—some for decades.

We also need to see actual innocence legislation that takes into account disability and deafness—all cases where deaf individuals allege actual innocence should be reviewed for errors related to communication as well as other factors that lead to wrongful convictions.  Finally, we need to be intentional in the development of systems and structures such that we deeply engage with all citizens to bring about institutions and a society that considers disability in the development of policies, regulations and laws.  If our professions mimic the panoply of people that exist in society, we would all be much better served.

What are your long-term goals for HEARD? What can concerned people do to help you reach them? 

HEARD has operated as an all-volunteer organization for four years.  We do not have an office or staff and it is impossible to keep up with the present demand for advocacy.  We have a tiny group of people who have full time careers and/or university schedules who graciously dedicate time to this incredibly physically, emotionally and economically taxing advocacy. 

Ideally, we need offices in multiple regions of the United States with deaf, deaf-blind, deaf-disabled, hard of hearing, and hearing advocates, psychologist, social workers, attorneys, etcetera.  These teams would support justice professionals serving deaf clients; family members of deaf incarcerated people; deaf returned citizens; and deaf people within the justice system.  This model would considerably advance the rights of deaf people and people with disabilities in the justice, legal and corrections settings.

Of course, the long-term goal of any disability justice or civil rights organization is to be so successful as to put itself out of work or to change the capacity in which it began its service.  I hope the Deaf Access to Justice Movement will one day be studied as one of several successful intersectional, community-led, community-centered movements of the early 21st century.  

Related Reading — Penned In: Letters Reveal the Lives of Transgender Women in Prison.

Sarah Marshall is a teacher and a beginning American Sign Language student at Portland State University, and apologizes in advance for how slowly she will ask you to fingerspell for her.

by Sarah Marshall
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I like sandwich-centric traveling and writing about legal issues and the dancing that happens at the very end of parties and you. One time, I married the sea.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Bitch you should probably be

Bitch you should probably be capitalizing Deaf in your article. It does seem that your article is dealing with culturally Deaf individuals and not referring to simply audiological attributes.

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