Deaf Inmates: Void of Accessible Communication

By Dr. Daniel Swartz, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12

I have been interpreting for 31 years, with nearly the last 10 at 360 Translations. I specialize in legal interpreting, which can range from police interrogations to murder trials, and everything in between. And that includes interpreting at jails and prisons for incarcerated deaf offenders. 

Every time I leave a situation where a deaf person is jailed, I feel a sense of emptiness and dismay at the nearly 100% isolation that a deaf inmate faces. Most times, the deaf person is the lone deaf soul at the facility. Even if there are other deaf inmates at the jail/prison, I have never seen them housed in the same pod or cell block with other deaf inmates. I shake my head in wonder, trying to understand the nearly complete shuttering of communication; is it cruel and unusual punishment?

As a society we accept that one who is found guilty of breaking the law must be punished, and that could very well include time behind bars. With the loss of freedom comes the forfeiture of many other things, but should that also include loss of simple conversation and communication with others?

A Simple Call Home?

Video communication supplanted the use of TTYs/TTDs many years ago, but most correctional facilities do not have videophones, relying solely on obsolete equipment that serves no other purpose than to collect dust. Hearing inmates are not only privy to communication in the facility, they have access to family and friends via phone contact. Deaf inmates, by and large, are denied communication access on all fronts, including the placement of a simple call to home. 

This call could (and should) happen, via VRS (Video Relay Service), if laws on the books were followed. Jails and Departments of Correction violate federal law everyday when they refuse to utilize VRS, a free service that can be installed for free. 

Emmanuel Steward signs to an interpreter on a video relay screen, a special videophone that relays what he says in sign language to his family members back home. Steward is imprisoned on Louisiana, one of the few states in the nation that provides this communication service to deaf prisoners. (Photo: Annie Flanagan)

Please read a thorough discussion of this, and other related issues, by visiting Mike Ludwig’s article here. 

2 replies
  1. Barry Critchfield
    Barry Critchfield says:

    Outstanding article! I have been supporting/following Deaf inmates in Georgia for several years… It is so frustrating to see the corrections systems refusing to accept even the simplest suggestions as to how they could better serve Deaf inmates… Sometimes I think the most DEAF are the prison authorities.

    • admin
      admin says:

      Thank you Barry. I will always stand by my opinion, that it is “cruel and unusual punishment” the way deaf inmates are housed, until things change drastically for the better.


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