The Secret World of Deaf Prisoners
The Crime Report, Commentary, James Ridgeway, Posted: Oct 14, 2009 Review it
Editor’s Note: The deaf face a nightmare when they fall into the criminal
justice system, writes investigative journalist James Ridgeway. The
following is a special report written for The Crime Report, a publication of
the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College for Criminal
Justice, City University of New York. It originally appeared in Ridgeway’s
In the 1970s, an antiwar demonstrator found himself at New York City’s
Rikers Island jail facility for a couple of months on a disorderly conduct
charge. The demonstrator, who happened to be a friend of mine, met a handful
of young men from the Bronx in his unit who were deaf.
They were having trouble communicating with anyone but themselves. My friend
knew a little sign language and, after a few conversations, discovered they
were illiterate. With the idea of helping them improve their communication
skills, he asked prison authorities for permission to order books on sign
language from the publisher. The wardens refused, saying that they did not
want anyone in that prison using a “language” they could not understand.
Things may have changed a little for the better since then. But not by much.
I first wrote about the deaf in the late 1960’s in the New Republic and so I
know something of the background which is what really informs this article.
While researching stories about solitary confinement at Angola Prison for
Mother Jones, I came upon an article in Prison Legal News about widespread
violations against deaf prisoners. Remembering the people and culture I had
caught a glimpse of in the ’60s, I got in touch with the article’s author,
McCay Vernon. Luckily he remember my earlier writing, and promptly agreed to
The letters quoted below are from deaf prisoners to different people in the
“free world,” who are seeking to help them, to advocate their cause. I have
disguised the advocates, prisoners and prisons to keep the inmates from
getting reprisals—reprisals which they fear on a daily basis. You have to
remember a deaf person can’t hear the chatter among other inmates, can’t
hear the person sneaking up behind, is unintelligible in his cries for help
during a rape.
The deaf face a nightmare when they fall into the criminal justice system.
They live in a world apart to begin with; but in prison they are thrown into
a dread new environment where they literally can’t understand the language
of either their jailers or the other prisoners. When people who have never
heard a spoken word try to speak, the sounds come out jumbled and
weird—leading ill-informed jailers to think they are obstreperous or crazy.
As a consequence, some deaf prisoners can end up in solitary.
I discovered numerous examples of abuses and violations of the rights of
deaf prisoners as part of an ongoing investigative reporting project. But
the most troubling discovery I made was how little has been done about the
problem in the criminal justice system—and how little is known about it
outside prison walls.
No one knows exactly how many deaf prisoners there are in the U.S. Efforts
by psychologists and other experts to find out have been largely
unsuccessful. With few exceptions—the state of Texas apparently being one—no
one counts the deaf or hard of hearing in the prison population.
But according to two researchers, as many as one-third of the entire U.S.
prison population of 1.7 million have difficulty hearing—with some of them
being profoundly deaf. The researchers, Prof. Katrina Miller of Emporia
State University in Kansas, herself a former corrections officer, and McCay
Vernon, a psychologist whose late wife was deaf and who has worked within
the prison community for years, believe it is long past time to seek help
for this ignored segment of prisoners. Almost two-thirds of deaf prisoners,
according to some studies, are in jail for violent and often sexual offenses
committed against children. (The deaf are themselves at increased risk for
abuse as children, the researchers point out.)
A person is hard of hearing if he/she has a 50 percent loss of hearing in
one ear. Prisoners who are illiterate as well as deaf are especially
deprived when they find themselves in the criminal justice system. They
seldom have been educated beyond second grade and, as a consequence, have
trouble reading and writing. Because they are deaf and without competent
interpreters, they can’t go to AA meetings or drug counseling or make it
through educational programs.
The abuses begin as soon as a deaf prisoner enters the criminal justice
system and faces accusers in court. Often the hard of hearing and deaf
can’t hear the charges against them, don’t know what the trial is all about,
don’t know why the guards are screaming at them, can’t hear bells or
commands from others. If they are close enough to the judge and look hard at
him, they can read his lips. But, as McCay Vernon points out, only 50
percent of spoken sounds can be translated into sign language.
On occasion, deaf persons will be given a court interpreter who knows sign
language. But this can be a doubly frustrating experience: sign language
can’t convey the special, often arcane lingo used by defense lawyers,
prosecutors and judges. Most deaf people don’t read lips. The idea they can
hear normally, or at least hear enough to act as if they can hear normally,
is a myth of the hearing world, Vernon points out.
Sign language is enriched by mime, hand-spelling, and cued speech (which is
a combination of signs and lip movement). In prisons and jails around the
country, there are few interpreters who are trained well enough in this form
of communication. Often other deaf or hard-of-hearing prisoners are
recruited to help, but just as often deaf prisoners are left with few
resources when they are confronted with pitfalls and crises that are
tragically common in today’s prison system.
One deaf prisoner wrote, for example, that when he sought help after a
prison rape, the guards laughed at him. A hard-of-hearing inmate who
requested a pair of headphones to listen to the radio was turned down by the
warden, who said he had not filled out the papers correctly. A request for a
vibrating alarm clock got a similar rejection.
When deaf inmates want to make a phone call using TTD—a method of typing out
messages—the prison insists two guards must be in the room. To make matters
worse, the deaf are restricted to the same amount of phone time as hearing
prisoners, though it takes twice the time to type out the messages.
Such anecdotes illustrate that deaf prisoners are faced daily with
violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates equal
treatment for deaf and other disabled persons. There is even a provision
under the Act to pay attorneys additional sums to bring cases to correct
inequities suffered by deaf inmates—a provision which, like other parts of
the act, is honored mostly in the breach.
A twitter for these people isn’t just a vehicle for social networking, but a
lifesaving device to communicate with the hearing world.
Complicating this situation, is the fact that the deaf community in general
rarely goes to bat for peers who are in prison. As the mother of one deaf
son, told me, “it makes them look bad.” Thus deaf prisoners are subject to a
double isolation—from the prison community and from the larger community of
In a letter to a friend, one deaf prisoner wrote the following:
I have been lowered to nothing more than a beggar in order to stand up for
something. I believe the deaf have a right too. But I tell you this…there is
no help for us here…I am almost at the end of my rope and believe that
before I submit this body to any form of sexual act in order to get legal
work done, I will take my own life. There is no help for us here…Many nights
I have stayed awake contemplating the end and only my fear in the Lord Jesus
in not accepting me in heaven has kept me from that act.
Many many times deaf people raped and beat and no help from the officers.
Hearing people steal our things…when we try to talk to officers, they just
laugh. So hard for us. Many, many times I just want to die but have Jesus in
[my] heart…Now one day at a time. Pray every day to help other deaf.
This letter is signed with the drawing of a small, round smiling face and
the words, “Deaf and proud.”