There is a plethora of problems faced by Deaf inmates, but perhaps the most significant is the lack of communication. Deafness is more than a condition of being unable to hear – it is a condition of being unable to communicate. Most Deaf do not speak English as a native language. Many have no language or communication mechanism at all, but the majority of Deaf are raised speaking ASL. This is a language, not an add-on or overlay. In other words, one does not grow up with English, and then later in life, translate that English into Sign. It’s as alien a linguistic form to ours as is Chinese.
This problem then, translates into spoken commands, but also written and symbolic ones. For example, we all understand that when a corrections officer says, “Get away from that bunk,” a deaf inmate will not be able to follow that direction. However, what we don’t realize is that he, often, will not be able to make sense of a sign that says “No prisoners allowed near bunks during daylight hours.” Nor will he be any better off with a pictogram of a man standing next to a bunk, inside a barred red circle.
The officers and other inmates see this inability to follow orders as a form of impudence, and seek to punish it accordingly. Again, the deaf inmate – having no comprehension of his offense – has no understanding as to why he’s being punished. His behavior continues, as do the punishments.
A minority perhaps – but nonetheless a surprising number of Deaf, are illiterate. Think of the horror of this. You’re being arrested. For what, you don’t know. In fact, you may not even understand the concept of arrest at all. First thing – they cuff your hands behind your back. The only communication you know is now gone. It’s as if they had gagged you with duct tape. All kinds of shouting, hitting and intimidations are going on – and not only can you not understand them, but they cannot understand you. Finally, they figure out that you’re deaf. They search the cruiser and come up with a postage stamp sized scrap of paper and a pen that doesn’t work. They tell you to write what you have to say, but you can’t write! You’ve been raised speaking with your hands – speaking as a first language – something completely alien to them.
Even those individuals who speak a foreign language have the advantage over the Deaf, because they’ve managed to pick up enough broken English to get by, and the chances that someone in the police station speaks Spanish, German or French are far better than the chances they speak Sign.
Linguistically, Sign is a very physical, very subtle and surprisingly noisy language. They touch each other and themselves. They grunt and make faces. They express themselves in a very brutish and potentially offensive manner. Two hearies, when speaking to one another – especially among the two genders – tend to stand about 6 feet from each other. They speak with their mouths, using words to express themselves. They use sarcasm, inflection and mannerisms.
Imagine this scenario. You’re a young single female, alone in a public place at night. Let’s say something like a Laundromat or self-serve gas station. Nobody is around, but one other male patron. He walks up to you – putting his hands on you, grunting and pointing at something. He appears scared, angry and hostile. Are you going to wait even 1 second before screaming rape? What if all he wanted was to know how to work the gas pump, or the change machine? Nevertheless, you wouldn’t know that. Quite understandably, you would feel threatened and intimidated.
Now, imagine a similar situation, inside a facility where a pervasive culture of violence and abuse is the norm. There you have the day-to-day existence of a Deaf inmate.
BitcoDavid is a blogger, administrator, and primary contributor to DeafInPrison.com. Originally an a/v and computer engineer, he became interested in Deaf advocacy through his clients at DeafInPrison. DeafInPrison also features Dr. McCay Vernon – a psychologist and author, Pat Bliss – a paralegal that has been active in cases, Joanne Greenberg – an advocate and author, and Jean F. Andrews – a university professor and author.
Editor’s note: The blogosphere is home to many sites that work to educate and reform the criminal justice system. DeafInPrison.com is one outstanding example. Through getting to know the site’s webmaster, CrimeDime took an interest in their work. We asked several questions with the idea of doing an interview, but it turns out there’s so much to discuss on this topic that a series of separate posts made more sense.