By Jean F. Andrews
According to a recent newsletter by HEARD, as of March 31, 2013, there are 407 deaf and deaf-blind prisoners in 38 states, Washington, D.C. and in the Federal Bureau of Prisoners. Within these numbers, we do not know exactly how many are deaf-blind or deaf and visually-impaired inmates there are in prison.
Deaf-blind and deaf-visually impaired inmates are most vulnerable to human rights abuses and often do not receive adequate accommodations in jails and prison. Take for example, the case of Ms. Jones, an African-American deaf-visually impaired woman who has been incarcerated numerous times, mostly for misdemeanors. Ms. Jones is profoundly deaf , has limited vision in both eyes, uses American Sign Language (ASL) as her primary language, and reads at the second grade level. To effectively use a sign language interpreter, the interpreter must sign very close to Ms. Jones’ face. She can use a videophone but she must be situated very close to the screen to see the signs of the other person.
At each of her arrests, Ms. Jones was not provided with an interpreter. In her last arrest, she was charged with possessing drugs but none were ever recovered and she did not have an interpreter during the arrest to tell her side of the story. While in jail, she was not provided an interpreter during the booking or during the medical intake. She was not able to explain that she was diabetic and took insulin, and spent three days in jail without her insulin. While in jail she was given a copy of the inmate handbook and a number of forms to sign but she could not read them given her low reading level of second grade. No interpreter was provided to translate these documents. Consequently, she did not learn about the rules she was required to follow while in jail but instead had to depend on another inmate who had rudimentary fingerspelling skills. Upon release, she frequently violated her probation because she did not understand the fees and regulations she had to follow. Because she did not understand the rules of her probation, she violated them and was subsequently jailed.
Ms. Jones’ story points to the inequities of the criminal justice system particularly for those inmates who have more than one disability. Ms. Jones’ deafness, visual impairment, and diabetic condition combine to make special accommodations necessary in order for her to have her rights as designated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Policy in jails and prisoners need to reflect awareness of these unique needs of deaf, deaf-blind, and deaf and medically fragile inmates, and include training for jail officials in order to ensure deaf blind inmates are given their Constitutional Rights.
Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.
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