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In Isolation In Isolation: Deaf Prisoners

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jun 28, 2023 | 0 Comments

In the U.S., there isn't an exact amount of how many deaf and hard of hearing individuals that are currently incarcerated. There's also little to no communication access for them behind bars either.

It's what the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community like to call, in isolation in isolation. Many facilities never provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for prisoners which leads to them getting out later than planned. Many prisoners overall have a disability, and with the constant noise pollution with yelling and loud sirens that are heard daily for years and decades, many come out with some level of hearing loss.

With very few states that have facilities that are established for the disabled and deaf community, called Sensorially Disabled Units (SDI), it's still a developing structure of housing and rehabilitation. More than less deaf and hard of hearing prisoners became incarcerated in the judicial process without their consent or assistance. In violation of the Sixth Amendment with the right to a fair trail and a right to a lawyer, some prisoners never even got to know what was actually going on in trial with no sign interpreter to help translate to an attorney on staff that could help assist when interacting with law enforcement. The disabled community has negative and fatal experiences with the police, with improper or no training on detecting whether an individual has a disability and how to approach them without harm. It becomes this lackluster of justice that seems more where deaf/HOH individuals feel incapable of using their agency and rights.

Michele Friedner from SAPIEN reports her experiences as deaf person and the limited choice but to wear hearing aids in order to assimilate into the hearing world. She mentions that with the lack of sign interpreters and other communication resources, hearing aids can be essential for so many in prison. The problem is, most prisons only allow one hearing aid to be worn (if hearing loss for both ears and no hearing aid if only for one ear), and usually it's for the better ear. For some prisons, hearing aid chargers and batteries are not allowed due to the risk of creating a bomb or using it for unlawful purposes so it's not even a choice to wear one or not. She explains that having functioning hearing aids in prison can be a high stakes situation. Deaf/HOH prisoners can miss a roll call or an announcement to eat, resulting in being marked absent and missing their daily nutrients. Their safety is also impaired with not being able to hear sounds or voices. Unfortunately, they experience rape and sexual assault at high rates.

Solitary confinement is another layer to the problem in the prison system for deaf prisoners. Already an isolating experience with little to no interaction, it impacts the mental health of each incarcerated individual and more detrimentally deaf folks. Prison has caused many deaf inmates to lose their language, and with English as a second for many, communication feels like a push too hard to try in your position of oppression.

There are several constitutional violations and legal rights that have been dismissed for over five decades. The American Disabilities Act covers state agencies while the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 covers federal. Here are the policies and their definitions, credited to National Association of the Deaf:

Title II of the ADA, the U.S. Department of Justice regulation to Title II, 28 C.F.R. Part 35, and the Analysis thereto, 56 Fed. Reg. 35694 (July 26, 1991), clarify the requirements of Section 504, and extend them to institutions that do not receive federal financial assistance.  First, the Title II regulations define the term “qualified interpreter” to mean “an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”  28 C.F.R. § 35.104.

The ADA Title II regulations also identify the auxiliary aids and services which a state or local correctional facility may have to provide:  “[q]ualified interpreters, notetakers, computer-aided transcription services, written materials, telephone handset amplifiers, assistive listening devices, assistive listening systems, telephones compatible with hearing aids, closed caption decoders, open and closed captioning, telecommunication devices for deaf persons (TDDs) [also called teletypewriters or TTYs], videotext displays, or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments.”  28 C.F.R. § 35.104.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794, guarantees persons with disabilities equal access to any entity that receives federal financial assistance, either directly or indirectly.  Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12141 et seq., now extends these same rights to inmates in all state and local facilities.  The standards of accessibility are similar under these two laws.

Currently, the ACLU is filing a lawsuit against Georgia Department of Corrections for not having videophones available for their inmates with hearing disabilities. West Resendes, a deaf attorney who will be representing the prisoners in this class action that the organization was granted certification for, makes notice how being in isolation in isolation is a danger to no longer be ignored.

In January 2024, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon require all prison phone companies to provide communication services for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners, applying this mandate to people in jails, immigration detention, juvenile detention, and secure mental health facilities domestically (The Marshall Project, 2023). This accomplishment would not have been possible without the over-a-decade long fight to make communication accessible for deaf/HOH prisoners that have been abandoned in the justice system. Its worsening was most prevalent during the lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic where most impacted prisoners did not even know about the coronavirus or the vaccine until months or a year later due to the blockage of interpreters and videophones.

HEARD, a mutual aid organization that support disabled persons who experience ableism in capitalist hierarchies including prisons, have coordinated a list of ideas that hearing folks can look at in order to help deaf prisoners in receiving adequate treatment and communication tools as their hearing prison neighbors do:

What can we do to help Deaf in Prison?

  1. Sign HEARD's Petition to the United States Department of Justice requesting national standards for management of deaf prisoners, including functionally equivalent telecommunication.
  2. Contact your congresspersons and ask that they formally request a congressional hearing on incarcerated people who are deaf and incarcerated people with disabilities. You can find your congresspersons here:
  3. Contact the director of your local jail or state department of corrections to express concerns about conditions of confinement for deaf prisoners. Find information about these agencies here:
  4. Contact the governor of your state to express your concerns about management of deaf and disabled detainees and prisoners.
  5. Send a letter to the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, demanding oversight over prisons

and enforcement of federal disability rights laws.

Civil Rights Division

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

  1. Set up a committee within state associations or commissions of the deaf that focuses on deaf prisoner needs, tracking, and advocacy. The committee can be responsible for working to form relationships with law enforcement and corrections (i.e., conduct sensitivity trainings); with local groups that are lobbying for deaf/disability access in prisons; law firms that are interested in litigating these issues; and work closely with HEARD (information/resource sharing, local point of contact).
  2. Adopt a legislator for HEARD—Congresspersons want to hear from their constituents (people who live in their own state). HEARD has prisoners in most every state, but does not always know of community members in these states who can contact legislators. If you would like to serve as a go-between for HEARD on Deaf Access to Justice issues within your state, please let us know so we can develop this network of advocates. If you are aware of a legislator who is sensitive about deaf or disability justice, please let us know that as well.
  3. Visit and correspond with deaf prisoners. Each department of corrections has its own regulations about prison visitation. If you are interested, you should review your state department of corrections' website for further information. HEARD volunteers frequently visit prisons and we need more community members to do the same so we can continue to work to change corrections professionals' perceptions about and awareness of deaf culture and communication.
  4. Help HEARD locate deaf prisoners & donate funds, time, and resources to HEARD. To donate, please visit our website at or send checks to HEARD at P.O. Box 1160, Washington, D.C. 20013.
  5. Share what you learn from the #DeafInPrison Campaign with as many people as possible

Supporting Documents:

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