The Horror of Being Deaf and in Prison

[Ed. The following article was written by Dr. McCay Vernon, and appeared originally in the American Annals of the Deaf while Dr. Donald Moores was editor. The current editor is Peter V. Paul, Ph.D.The business and editorial offices for the publication are at Gallaudet University.]

For any human being, imprisonment is a devastating experience (No Escape, 2001). Sadistic, malicious violence is pervasive in this setting and the number one fear of inmates is that they will either be raped and/or murdered (Lockwood, 1980; and Ross & Richards, 2002).

Evidence proves that these fears are justified (Beck & Harrison, 2007; & Kuper, 1996). Part of the problem, especially with regard to rape, is that correctional officers often do little to prevent it and, on occasion, even encourage it or participate in it (Beck & Harrison, 2007;  No Escape, 2001). Despite the fact that rape is both illegal and pervasive in prisons, these facilities rarely take such cases to court and prosecute the guilty party (Gilligan, 1997). Obviously this failure encourages more rapes.

When gangs are dominant in prisons, which is often the case, the problems can be even worse. These gangs go by names such as “The Aryian Brotherhood,” “Latin Kinds,” “Mexican Mafia,” “The Black Gorilla Family,” etc. (Hogshire, 1999). As their names indicate, most are comprised of racial groups with strong ethnic biases. In many cases, inmates are forced to join one gang in order to get protection from the other gangs. If they do not join they are defenseless and have no one but themselves for protection (Hogshire, 1999).

Young inmates and those who are new to prisons are especially vulnerable to rape and other violence because they are seen as highly desirable in a sexual sense, they are more naïve, and are easier to rape (Hogshire, 1999). If they are also Deaf, they are exponentially more defenseless.

Compounding the problem of such in-prison attacks is the fact that in these times jails and prisons face decreased funding and severe overcrowding (Ross & Richards, 2002). For example, gyms, dayrooms, and similar facilities that normally provide space for educational classes, vocational programs, group therapy and other services are being converted to makeshift dormitories. The author witnessed this in a Maryland prison where a large gym was converted to a dormitory filled with double bunk beds spaced so closely together that inmates could reach over and touch inmates on either side. In a large room arranged like this, visibility to most of the beds is severely constricted, making supervision extremely difficult and often impossible. Under such conditions, violence and rape are far more pervasive (Kupor, 1996).

Health problems such as HIV/AIDs, Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis, mental illness and suicide also occur to a disproportionate extent in jails and prisons (Anon, 1998). The problem is further compounded by the poor medical care available in most correctional facilities (Ross & Richards, 2002).

To be deaf and thrust into a prison to face these kinds of dangers circumstances is terrifying. Making the situation even worse is that the basic rights set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the United States Constitution, and related legislation designed to protect disabled inmates are routinely ignored by jail and prison officials and not enforced by state and federal police and courts, leaving inmates who are Deaf essentially defenseless (Miller, 2001; Thomas &Gaston, 2009; AND, 2004; Musumeci, 2006; and Vernon, 2009).

These conditions compound the vulnerability of inmates who are Deaf because most cannot speak very intelligibly nor read well enough to understand jail and prison rules and procedures that they are expected to follow (Miller, 2001). In addition, they are unable to understand what their fellow inmates and the correctional officers say to them due to the limitations of lipreading (Vernon & Andrews, 1990). Nor can they hear the prisons’ public address systems that provide critical information to hearing inmates and to correctional officers.

In addition the lack of qualified sign language interpreters in almost all U.S. jails and prisons leaves most inmates who are Deaf unaware of much of the information needed for safety and survival in prison (Miller, 2001; Vernon, 2009). These problems are made worse by the fact that in most prisons TTYs and videophones are in very limited supply, if available at all, making communication with family members, friends, attorneys and others severely limited, furthering the isolation inherent in deafness. It also means that access to educational programs, vocational training, religious services, faith-based programs, mental health programs for addiction, etc. are not available to the inmate who is Deaf. These types of programs are critical to most prisoners’ hopes for coping in life when they are eventually released.

Characteristics of Prison Inmates Who Are Deaf

To understand the full implication of incarceration for a person who is Deaf, it is necessary to know some of the characteristics of these individuals. A few such characteristics were described in the opening section of this paper. However, the most comprehensive study of this population was done by Katrina Miller (2001).

Miller’s research included a study of 99 such individuals, 92 of whom were males in the Estelle Unit of a prison near Huntsville, Texas. The seven women were in the Murray Unit in Gatesville, Texas. Of these prisoners, 76 percent lost their hearing prior to learning to speak or to use English language. Consequently, none of them were able to talk intelligibly (Miller, 2001). The reason for their inability to communicate in English is equivalent to the problem hearing persons would have trying to speak Russian if they could not hear it.

Besides having a profound impact on speech intelligibility, early onset deafness drastically impairs the learning of the English language (Andrews, Leigh & Weiner, 2004). For example, children born deaf who do not receive preschool education enter first grade not knowing the names of the foods they eat, the clothes they wear, their own names, etc. Along with having little or no vocabulary, they lack the knowledge of English syntax needed to connect words and form sentences (Vernon & Andrews, 1990).

Those who do get preschool education or have parents who are Deaf or who know sign language do better linguistically, but they still do not do nearly as well as children who can hear. For example, thirty percent of students who are Deaf leave school at age 18 or above functionally illiterate and reading at grade level 2.8 or below. Sixty percent are reading at third and fourth grade level (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003; Traxler, 2000).

This background information makes understandable the findings Miller (2001) obtained regarding the 99 inmates in her sample, all of whom were Deaf. As a group, they had an average educational level of second grade, fourth month when they entered prison. Thee data were based on scores obtained on the Test of Basic Education, a standardized educational achievement test used nationally (Miller, 2001). This is despite the fact that an extensive review of the literature on people who are Deaf indicates their IQs are distributed essentially the same as IQs in the hearing population (Vernon, 2005/1965).

In sum, most of the inmates in Miller’s study were functionally illiterate, meaning they could barely read and they also had unintelligible speech. Thus they were limited to an extremely primitive level of communication with prison correctional officers and other prison authorities, as well as with fellow inmates.

The significance of the impact of early onset deafness on educational achievement becomes especially critical when one considers that the IQ levels of the inmates who were Deaf ranged from 60 to 137, with a mean of 92, which is the same mean obtained on the hearing inmates. All IQs were based on results from the Test of Basic Education
(TABE). Miller’s sample is as representative of prisoners who are Deaf as any sample in the literature.

It is critical in understanding what the prison experience is like for an inmate who is Deaf to keep as a frame of reference the educational and linguistic level of the sample in Miller’s study (2001). The primary focus of this paper will be on prisoners who are Deaf and are at the same educational level as described in the Texas sample (Miller, 2001). They are representative of prisoners who are Deaf nationally. These individuals have huge a disadvantage within the criminal justice system, primarily in courts, interacting with the police, and in correctional facilities.

By contrast, well-educated people who are Deaf, while still very disadvantaged in coping with the court system, arrest procedures, and imprisonment, are far more able to assert their rights and argue for justice. As a result, those who are Deaf and well educated rarely go to prison, as contrasted with the individuals who are Deaf and function at the level Miller (2001) describes in her research.

The Ladder: from Arrest to Jail, to Trial, to Prison, and Parole or Probation


Individuals who are Deaf and get caught up in the criminal justice system face a high probability that at each step in the process their legal rights will be violated, often with serious, tragic consequences (Geer, 2003; Vernon, 2009). For example, these violations at and before the time of arrest increase the odds that later at trial they will be found guilty and sentenced to jail or prison (Vernon & Raifman, 1997; Vernon Raifman, Greenberg and Monteiro, 2001).

To illustrate, when first stopped and questioned by police, many suspects who are Deaf are unable to explain to the police officer the circumstances surrounding the alleged crime. This is due to their unintelligible speech and limited command of English. Also, the police rarely have a sign language interpreter present during these initial stages of arrest and interrogation. This is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other civil rights legislation (Terhune, 2004-2005). Later, when more in-depth interrogation takes place, it is usually done in jail or at the police station. These sessions should always have a competent sign language interpreter present and be video taped and audio taped. This is not done in many cases even though it is the only way to assure that the suspect who is Deaf understood what transpired during the interrogation and to have a complete record of the process (Vernon, Raifman, Greenberg & Montiero, 1998). These interrogations frequently last four to eight hours and are often coercive (Rogers, 2008). This results in a defendant who is likely to be scared, confused and exhausted as the procedure goes on. In this state, the suspect who is Deaf is likely to agree with most anything the interrogators suggest in the naïve hopes that he will be released and permitted to go home (Miranda v. Arizona, 384.U.S. 436 (1966); Rogers, 2008; and Vernon & Raifman, 1997). Most are unlikely to know that they have the right to remain silent nor are many of them apt to understand what an attorney is or what he does (Seaborn, 2004). Quite often the defendant will have already signed a Miranda Waiver and other documents far more complex than the Miranda Waiver, such as the Waiver of Search, permission for Polygraph Test, or Blood and Breath Test, all of which require reading levels beyond those of a high school graduate (Andrews, Vernon & LaVigne, 2007). For example, in an interview, a Texas prisoner (Miller, 2003) revealed:

“In court I had no interpreter. I asked for one, but they told me you don’t need one for this. I could not understand the paperwork they gave me, but I had to sign it. They made me sign it without an interpreter to explain it to me.”  

In cases where it was determined that the waivers were not administered in a manner accessible and understandable to the defendant, the evidence discovered as a result of the waivers should not be admissible in court. If it is not admitted, the suspect often goes free (Vernon & Coley, 1978; and Vernon & Raifman, 1997).

Following arrest and awaiting trial and/or transfer to prison, the person who is Deaf is often confined to jail. Most jails are crowded and often filthy, especially in smaller towns and cities in the South (Hogshire, 1999). Inmates are usually segregated or grouped based on their having been convicted or charged with similar offenses. Most jails, especially small ones, lack the accommodations required to assure deaf inmates receive the rights ADA and other civil rights legislation requires (Vernon, 2009). Police and correctional authorities can get by with this because ADA is not well enforced (Vernon, 2009). Unless the jail is a large one, there usually is no other inmate who is Deaf in the jail. To be the only individual who is Deaf in this kind of dangerous setting is to be relatively defenseless and almost totally isolated.

Once defendants who are Deaf are assigned a trial date, or before, they will either be provided a public defender, as is usually the case, or else they hire a private attorney. In trial preparation, the courts rarely agree to pay a sign language interpreter to enable a defendant who is Deaf to communicate with his lawyer. Consequently, most defendants who are Deaf are unable to adequately inform their attorney about the circumstances surrounding their case. This severely limits the effectiveness of the attorney and weakens the defendant’s case.

Another problem has to do with the plea bargain: If one is offered, the plea usually involves a lot of complex legal language addressing critical issues involving the defendant (Andrews, Vernon & LaVigne, 2007). The decision made regarding a pleas is an extremely important one with profound effects on the defendant’s future.

Under these circumstances, for some attorneys pleading a case and collecting the fee is preferable to going to trial (Hogshire, 1999). This is especially true if the lawyer does not have an interpreter and the defendant who is Deaf has unintelligible speech and writing that is only semi-comprehensible, as if often the case.

Such defendants are sometimes described as semi-lingual and comprise approximately 30 percent of the overall population of those who are Deaf (Aramburo, 2007), but they constitute about 90 percent of jailed or imprisoned criminal defendants who are Deaf.

In most trials of defendants who are Deaf, the only interpreter the court pays is the one who interprets what is said officially during the trial, meaning that conversation which the court stenographer transcribes. In rare cases, the court pays to have another interpreter to facilitate communication between the defendant and his attorney during the trial. Consequently, in most cases the defendant who is Deaf does not comprehend much of what is going on in his own trial. This is a gross violation of ADA and the rights of defendants who are Deaf (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003). If the defendant cannot afford an interpreter and neither the court nor the defendant’s lawyer will agree to pay for one, both the attorney and the defendant are at great disadvantage regarding important attorney-client communication during the trial and breaks taken during the course of the trial (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003).

There are some critically important aspects of sign language interpreting basic to trials of people who are Deaf. Most attorneys, judges and defendants are unaware of these issues involving defendants who are Deaf. For example, the largest commercially available dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL) has a vocabulary of only 5,600 signs (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003). By contrast, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has over half a million words (Brown, 2002). This means there are literally hundreds of thousands of words in English for which there is no sign. If the person who is Deaf is well educated, the interpreter can fingerspell the English words for which there are no signs. However, because the overwhelming number of criminal defendants who are Deaf are semilingual, they lack adequate vocabulary of English words and command of English syntax to understand words and sentences even if the interpreter fingerspells them. For what is said in court to be made understandable to semilingual defendants who are Deaf, the interpreter must do extensive expansion, using examples, pictures, mime, etc. This requires a lot of time and, in many cases, is not even possible. Furthermore, by the time the interpreter has finished doing the expansion, the speaker has usually said several hundred words or more. In order for the interpreter to catch up with the speaker, these additional comments will never get interpreted. Thus the defendant misses out on a significant part of his own trial, which is a denial of his basic legal rights (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003).

The problem could be solved by using consecutive interpreting, which involves the speaker saying a few words then waiting for the interpreter to do whatever expansion is required to interpret them. Then the speaker says more words, stopping again until they have been satisfactorily interpreted (Vernon & Miller, 2005). Courts almost never permit consecutive interpreting because it is very time consuming. However, it is also extremely helpful to both the interpreter and the defendant and to arriving at a fair verdict

The end result of these issues involving interpreting is that the average defendant in a criminal case who is Deaf is almost never able to participate in any significant way in his/her own trial, a clear violation of ADA as well as numerous state and local laws (Vernon, 1996).

Following the trial, if the defendant is found guilty and sentenced to prison, he may sit in jail several months awaiting transfer to a reception center. If so, this is an extremely difficult time because unless the jail is large he will be the only inmate there who is Deaf. During this period the inmate is usually not provided the services to which he is legally entitled, such as interpreting, access to a phone (TDY or videophone), church services, etc.

Upon leaving jail, the inmate usually goes to a prison reception center where he is tested educationally, evaluated psychologically, including an IQ test, and given instruction on how to behave in prison. He will be provided a copy of rules prisoners must obey, the procedures they will be expected to follow and the consequences of breaking these rules. This is vital information for survival in prison.

Rarely is an interpreter provided during the orientation and the handbook on prison rules is beyond the reading level of the overwhelming majority of prison inmates who are Deaf (Goben, Enos & Andrews (In Press, 2009). Yet the prisoner who is Deaf is expected to obey all these rules and regulations. Failure to do so can result in solitary confinement, loss of privileges, transfer to a different prison, or worse. For example, the inmate can lose good time he has earned that would otherwise result in an early release.

Another problem related to the orientation is that most correctional systems do not test hearing as a part of the process. Therefore, the prison to which the inmate is assigned has no idea that the inmate is Deaf when they give him a cell assignment, a cellmate, duties he has to fulfill, a job, etc. Another consequence of failing to test hearing as part of the physical exam given during orientation is that most prison systems do not know how many of their inmates are Deaf or where they are located within their system (Gibbs & Ackerman, 1999). This makes providing services impossible. Because, as indicated earlier,  being Deaf makes an inmate more vulnerable to rape and other offenses, most prisoners who are Deaf attempt to conceal their hearing loss from the general population. This creates other problems.

Following orientation, the prisoners are chained together, put on a bus and sent to the prison to which they have been assigned. Because the inmate who is Deaf had no interpreter during the orientation, he is devoid of the information given there and has no idea of what is to happen to him. Thus, it is inevitable that he will break some rules because he does not know they exist. Such violations can mean solitary confinement, loss of earned good time, dismissal from a prison job, no commissary privileges, etc.

The prison’s public address system, which is auditory, compounds the problem for the inmate who is Deaf. Because he can’t hear it, he misses out on the vital information that is provided, such as fire warnings, lockdowns, announcements of meal times, lights out, riot alerts, and other emergencies.

Other deprivations inmates who are Deaf suffer due to the absence or scarcity of sign language interpreters is that they cannot participate in prison programs such as educational classes, religious services, vocational programs, group therapy, addiction treatment, etc. Nor do they receive adequate medical services because when they see nurses, doctors or psychologists for their physical and mental problems, the visits are often futile due to the failure to supply interpreters.  It is even worse if they are experiencing serious psychological disorders.

Another issue that can create problems due to the lack of sign language interpreters is when a prison uses an inmate who knows sign language to interpreter for important functions such as disciplinary hearings. The worst result of this is when the “interpreter” deliberately provides interpretation that turns the Disciplinary Hearing against the inmate who is Deaf. This is easy to do since no one at the hearing except the interpreter knows what the inmate who is Deaf is signing, and what the “interpreter” is saying to the inmate in sign language. The interpreter can change and distort it in any way he desires. Also, very confidential facts are often revealed in these hearings. Later, the inmate interpreter can use this confidential information as blackmail.

Inmates who are Deaf and in the correctional system face many more such abuses than space in this paper permits describing. We have tried to bring attention to some of them.

Parole and Probation

Parole and probation are usually one of the two steps that precede discharge from prison. Most prisoners have usually earned some good time, meaning they are released from prison before they have completed their full sentence (Ross & Richards, 2002). They are then required to serve the rest of their time on parole, except in those states which have no parole.

Statistics on parole indicate that 50 percent of those on parole break parole rules and are returned to prison within a year. Seventy percent are returned within three years for the same reason (Ross & Richards, 2002). The rules of parole are extremely technical and difficult to understand. They are given to parolees who are Deaf in printed form who then, unknowingly violate the rules because they can’t understand them. These inmates are then returned to prison to serve the balance of their sentences. Relatively few parolees, hearing or Deaf, are returned to prison based on new convictions for crimes committed during parole (Ross & Richards, 2002).

Federal prisoners face a different situation. They have two sentences. The first time they go to prison they must serve 85 percent of their term before being released. The second sentence, covering the remaining 15 percent of their sentence, involves community supervision. This is not based time earned for good behavior (Ross & Richards, 2002).

There are also pre-release programs such as furloughs, educational releases, and work releases. These involve time away from prison during the day while performing an approved activity and returning to the prison daily upon completing the activity.

Two major problems with parole and probation relate to inmates who are Deaf. The first is that rarely are any interpreting services provided as part of the process. The second is that, many of the rules and regulations involved in parole and probation are provided prisoners in written forms that require readability levels far above that of the overwhelming majority of inmates who are Deaf. This, these inmates have little, if any, understanding of the rules they have to obey and unknowingly violate them.

For example, Miller (2003) quoted from a deaf parolee she interviewed in Texas as follows:

“They put a metal bracelet on my leg, but I did not know what it was for. I took my brother’s truck and went out driving and the police came and arrested me. So I had to go back to prison.”

The man lost the six months of good time he had earned and had to spend six more months in prison as a parole violator because he did not understand he was not permitted to drive.

If the rules for probation and parole were simply interpreted into sign language and put on videos which could be viewed by deaf prisoners prior to or while on parole, the problem and the considerable expenses of recidivism could be reduced. The cost of such a video would be minimal. Something this simple could save parolees who are Deaf years of prison time and prisons thousands of dollars. Failure to provide such instruction in a manner intelligible to inmates who are Deaf is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a failure of the American justice system to enforce this major civil rights law.

The Mentally Ill and Homeless in Jails

Individuals who are both mentally ill and Deaf are by far the most neglected segment of the mentally ill population in the United States (Vernon & Leigh, 2007). Consequently, there is a paucity of data on these individuals. For this reason, it is often necessary to generalize from data on hearing mentally ill samples, or to make observations based on personal experience when such information is not available in the literature on mentally ill individuals who are Deaf.

To understand how this country arrived at the current status of its treatment of mentally ill individuals, both hearing and Deaf, it is necessary to go back to 1845. At that time Dorothy Dix visited a Massachusetts jail to teach a Bible class. There she discovered that many of the prisoners were mentally ill and that they had no heat in their cells despite the freezing temperatures. When she asked the jailors why this was so, they responded, “The insane do not need heat.” (McHugh, 2006).

For the next two decades, Dix traveled across the United States, convincing the public that the mentally ill required treatment, not punishment (McHugh, 2006). Her work convinced thirty states to build asylums in order that the mentally ill could be removed from jails and prisons and provided treatment. By 1900 every state in the union had at least one asylum for the mentally ill (Early, 2006). However, by the 1940s these asylums had become dumping grounds, not just for the mentally ill but for the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the blind, etc. Many of the facilities were mismanaged and there were abuses of treatments such as electroshock therapy, lobotomies, fever therapy, etc. (Early, 2006).

In 1946, Life magazine ran a sensational expose with photographs of the abuses that were pervasive in these asylums. This was followed by Jane Ward’s book, The Snake Pit, and a series of newspaper stories in the same vein.

President Harry Truman reacted in 1946 by signing the bill that created the National Institute of Mental Health (Early, 2006). Its purpose was to find a cure for insanity. At about the same time, Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis was coming on the scene. It later became popular, but was eventually found to be of dubious validity and has gradually dropped in popularity (McHugh, 2006).

Around 1952, drugs such as chlorpromazine became to appear (McHugh, 2006). These psychotropic drugs acted against the symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychoses, leaving patients more manageable by reducing the delusions and violence of some of the more dangerous psychotic patients. As a result, fewer patients required hospitalization. These medications plus the federal government’s promise to establish local mental health facilities for the mentally ill led state legislatures to close their state mental hospitals (McHugh, 2006). In addition, it was assumed that other Federal programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security would enable many mentally ill patients to live independently in the community while receiving outpatient services, including prescriptions for their medications.

Unfortunately, the proposed local mental health facilities were never built. Thus, many of the discharged patients from the state asylums were left homeless, wandering the streets without supervision and often not taking their medications (Cohen & Thompson, 1992). In the 1950’s legislation, backed by civil rights lawyers and judges rather than mental health professionals and based on a decision by a Wisconsin court, compounded the problem. Wisconsin’s Lessard decsion ultimately led to the abolishment of involuntary hospitalization and treatment of the mentally ill (Torrey, 2008). It stated that “there must be an extreme likelihood that if a person is not confined that he will do immediate harm to himself or others. Furthermore, the dangerousness must be proven by a recent overt act or threat to do substantial harm to oneself or others.” (Torrey, 2008). This law, or minor variations of it, is in effect nationally and has been since the 1970s.  It now becomes almost impossible to hospitalize even the most psychotic, potentially dangerous mentally ill individual against his will.

Although well intended this legislation has proven to be a cause of much homelessness and the imprisonment of man mentally ill individuals (Torrey, 2008). Furthermore, even when patients are hospitalized against their will, civil rights lawyers can use the Lessard decision and related laws to quickly extradite them because of the rigid requirements set forth in this legislation.

The end result of all this is that when the police pick up a homeless mentally ill person for some misdemeanor or felony and take him to a mental hospital, typically the individual is back on the streets within 24 hours because he does not meet the strict requirements needed for involuntary admission and treatment. This whole process is repeated with variations many times every day all over the United States.

The police face a dilemma: they do not want to jail mentally ill people, but if they don’t jail them and mental hospitals won’t keep them. When these individuals then continue to break the law by urinating in public, walking around nude, sleeping on private properties jail and/or prison is the only alternative the police have.

The crux of this problem is legislation that says a person cannot be hospitalized involuntarily nor can he be forced to take medication or other treatments. While this is a well-intended law, it is extremely destructive to the mentally ill individual and to society. A contributing factor to this problem is a condition known as anosognosia. It refers to people who have a mental illness but do not know it, for example, the psychotic patient who says he is God and believes it. More importantly, he is also likely to claim he is not sick and he believes this too. Consequently, such individuals will refuse hospitalization, medications and other treatment. Under current laws, most of them cannot be committed to a hospital against their will nor treated unless they agree, regardless of how psychotic they are. Therefore these psychotic patients, a significant percent of whom are at times violent, are either left homeless on the streets or incarcerated in jails and prisons. This leaves our country today with the same situation Dorothy Dix faced in 1845, except that back then patients could be hospitalized against their will if their were psychotic and they could be forced to accept treatment. No rational person today believes that the option for people who are mentally ill should be prison, jail or homelessness, but this is the choice thousands in this country face today because they are psychotic and have anosognosia, but even more importantly because forced hospitalization and treatment are illegal (Torrey, 2008).

Given this historical material on the treatment of the mentally ill in this country, it is understandable why jails and prisons today house at least 360,000 persons with major psychiatric disorders, and possibly as many as half a million (Lamb, 2009). A significant number are Deaf. Currently, for many people with severe mental illness, if they receive any treatment at all, it is from the correctional system, not mental health facilities. Many of these people are highly resistant to treatment, i.e., they have anosognosia. When compared to prison inmates who have no psychiatric disorders, the mentally ill prisoners were significantly more likely to have committed violent offenses (Pia & Tornieto, 2006).

The data on Deaf people in prisons who are mentally ill people is limited. However, there is one in-depth study of inmates who are Deaf in one of these facilities (Miller, 2001). A number of factors indicate that if more such studies were done, the proportion of people who are Deaf and mentally ill who are housed in jails and prisons would be higher than for hearing people.

One such factor has to do with the major etiologies of deafness, which includes such conditions as premature birth, meningitis, head injuries, mumps, encephalitis, anoxia, genetics, scarlet fever, cytomegaly virus, mastoiditis, autism, etc. (Andrews, Leigh & Weiner, 2004; Moores, 2001; and Vernon, 1969) In addition to deafness, many of these conditions are known to cause brain damage and related mental disorders (Vernon, 1969).

Another factor has to do with parent-child relationships. Many parents of children who are Deaf never learn sign language. For this reason, their communication with their children is limited, resulting in the child not getting vital information such as sex education, advice on coping socially, budgeting information, the dangers of substance abuse, etc.

These conditions and the fact that deafness makes life in general far more difficult to cope with in a number of areas such as employment, education, the law, economic planning, and personal health care (Pollard & Barnett, 2009). These conditions leave those who are Deaf more vulnerable to mental illnesses than those who are hearing. Poor literacy levels and communication problems also play a major role. These aspects of deafness all contribute to the strong probability that there is more mental illness among people who are deaf than among those who hear (Harry & Dietz, 1985). The problem is compounded by the lack of specialized mental health facilities for those who are Deaf as well as the absence of social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists qualified to treat patients who are Deaf and mentally ill (Vernon & Leigh, 2008).


Rather than including a summary, this paper will recommend eight specific changes related to improving the care of persons who are Deaf and incarcerated.

1.                  Enforcement and Funding of the Amercans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is an outstanding piece of federal legislation; however, it has never been adequately funded , leaving that up to state and local governments (Thomas & Gastin, 2009; Vernon, 2009). In many cases these local jurisdictions do not have the money to assure ADA’s implementation and/or they do not see it as a priority.

The second problem is that law enforcement frequently fails to enforce ADA, especially in prisons and schools (Vernon, 2009). Until thee two problems are resolved, the passage of ADA will prove to be a failure in many respects. This problem should be resolved by changes in the law at that federal level.

2.                  Failure to Identify and Group Inmates who are Deaf

Most prison systems, both state and federal, do not even know who their Deaf inmates are, how many they have, or which institutions they are in. Most appalling is that this situation is easy to correct at very little cost. Yet nothing has been done about it.

To fix the problem, two steps need to be taken: First, all  inmates need to be audiologically screened for hearing loss at the time they enter the correctional system. This can be done with an inexpensive hand-held device known as an AudioScope which can be operated by a nurse, doctor, other medical specialist, or by any responsible lay person after only two or three hours of instruction (Griffin, Bordenick, & Vernon, 1984). Once the screener is trained, the screening process takes only a minute or two per prisoner.

After the individual has been identified as having a significant hearing loss, it should become a permanent part of the inmate’s medical record.

The second step needed is to identify the inmates who have already gone through the intake procedure and have become part of the prison population. The same screening procedure used at intake can be applied with these prisoners.

Screening is a simple, inexpensive process which can set the foundation for addressing the problems posed by inmates who are Deaf, problems that are destructive to the persons and place prisons in danger of law suits.

3.                  An Option for Addressing the Problem Faced by Inmates Who are Deaf and Hard-of-hearing

Once those who are Deaf or severely hard-of-hearing are identified, a separate unit should be established in each state correctional system for inmates who are Deaf. Those who want to be transferred to this unit should be moved there. They will usually be the inmates who are culturally Deaf and use sign language as their primary means of communication, plus others who have serious hearing losses but attended schools where there were no special programs for them.

A few states have done this or something similar. The best example is the Unit for the Deaf in Texas where there are around 100 inmates who are Deaf (Miller, 2001).

The reason a separate facility is so important for these individuals is that they are extremely vulnerable in the general population (Vernon, 2009).  For example, they are far more defenseless against sexual assault, other physical violence, intimidation, exploitation, etc. than other inmates (Vernon, 2009). In addition, deafness is very isolating and research has shown that isolation in prisoners is a major cause of psychological breakdowns and psychoses(Reutter, 2009; Weinstein, 2009 & Reutter, 2008).

Another rationale for a separate unit for inmates who are Deaf is that currently they are denied access to programs such as drug rehabilitation, educational classes, faith-based services, and therapies for various disorders.  These kinds of services are often provided hearing inmates (Miller, 2001). The reason for this exclusion is the cost of sign language interpreters for those who are Deaf. While failure to provide interpreters is a violation of ADA, the practice is pervasive in prisons (Vernon, 2009).

A major advantage of grouping together inmates who are Deaf is that it saves prisons money by centralizing interpreting services instead of having to supply interpreters for individual inmates in different prisons or different parts of the same prison. For example, when the separate unit was established in Texas, one interpreter was able to serve for numerous functions, whereas before,  many interpreters were required at greater expense.

Once such a unit is established, almost all inmates who are culturally Deaf and who depend on sign language will want to be in the unit (Miller, 2001). A few who became deaf later in life and do not know sign language may prefer to stay where they are and this preference should be respected.

In sum, establishing one unit for all Deaf inmates within a state or federal system saves the government money and greatly improves the situation for inmates who are Deaf.

4.The Prsion[sic] Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)

As it now stands, the PLRA cast shadows of constitutional immunity, contravening one core commitment to constitutional government (Schlanger & Shay, 2009). The PLRA’s obstacles to meritorious law suits are undermining the rule of law in our prisons and jails and granting the government near-impunity to violate the rights of prisoners without fear of consequences (Schlanger & Shay, 2009). While PLRA has also gone along way toward reducing frivolous lawsuits, it has also prevented prisoners from raising legitimate claims in serious cases involving rape, violence, neglect of needed medical services, religious discrimination, and retaliation by prison officials against those inmates who exercise their free speech rights (Reutter, 2009; and Schlanger & Shay, 2009).

Some legislation has been proposed in Congress to fix a few of the  more

egregious  problems created by PLRA, but the law desperately needs further revision (Reutter, 2009).

5.                  Prison Grievance Procedures

The major defense prisoners possess when they have a complaint about how they are treated by guards or other prison authorities or when they are attacked or raped by fellow inmates or denied basic constitutional rights, etc. is to file a grievance. This poses a major problem for inmates who are Deaf as most have only a second grade education and are unable to present their case in correct, understandable English (Miller, 2004). Nor are they provided with sign language interpreters to assist them in this task. There are also levels of grievances, time deadlines, and other bureaucratic requirements that discourage inmates from seeking justice by filing grievances.

Even more serious is that grievances filed against guards or other prison officials often result in punitive retaliation against the inmate, such as transfers to less desirable prisons, trumped up charges against the prisoner, loss of privileges, transfer to a cell with a violent cellmate, denial of parole, etc.

Filing a grievance is about the only recourse an inmate has. Until  the grievance procedure is completed in full according to PLAR requirements, the inmate has not properly exhausted his administrative remedies, and therefore is barred from making a federal claim. This leaves him unable to pursue his case.

Basically, PLAR was written by prison correctional officers and other prison officials to enable them to cover up abuses of inmates and to keep inmates from taking legal action against prison staff members who abuse them. The solution is for Congress to rewrite PLAR in a way that recognizes the constitutional rights of prisoners.

6.                  Prevent the Mentally Ill from Being Homeless or in Prison

Repeal of the Lanerman Paris Act is essential if we are to prevent many mentally ill people from becoming homeless or jailed as is now the case. According to this act, in order to be involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital, the person must be “an imminent danger to self or others” (Torrey, 2008). This is almost impossible to prove with certainty unless the individual is pointing a gun directly at someone’s head and has a finger on the trigger.

Consequently, when the police pick up a psychotic person and take the individual to a hospital, the person is usually released to the streets within 24 hours. Consequently, the police often do not bother to take the person to the hospital but take the individual to jail instead on some charge such as loitering, urinating in public, creating a disturbance, trespassing, etc. Obviously jail is not the appropriate place for a mentally ill person, although it may be preferable to being homeless on the streets, especially in winter.

If the Lanerman Paris Act were repealed, these individuals could be taken to a psychiatric facility and treated.

In addition to making the involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill persons possible, it is important to give hospitals the right to require patients who are psychotic to take psychotropic medication. Currently, due to laws passed by well-intended attorneys, doctors and hospitals are denied the right to forcefully medicate patients. This only prolongs and intensifies the patient’s illness and laws forbidding this practice should be repealed.

If the above suggestions regarding involuntary hospitalization and the use of medications were repealed and laws permitting involuntary hospitaliztion and medication were implemented, more patients would be in hospitals, not homeless or in jails and prisons . Furthermore, they would be getting proper treatment (Early, 20056) resulting in their psychological improvement.

7.                  The Privatization of Prisons

Currently, the owners of private prisons are paying lobbyists hundreds of

thousands of dollars to get legislation passed requiring longer mandatory prison sentences, more prosecutions even of non-violent offenders, less parole, more segregation, and, in general, a “lock them up” approach to criminals (Wright, 2009). Because the private prison industry can raise money and build prisons faster than state and federal governments, they are disproportionately benefiting from the rapidly growing prison population. For example, some states have more than half their inmates in private prisons in other states (Wright, 2009).

The failure of the legislative and executive branches of the government on criminal justice issues is the major reason for this burgeoning prison population. The record of private prisons is poor. The primary reason for this is that their motive is profit and the best way to increase profit is to decrease services. Historically, private prisons have been known for their brutality and corruption.

For this reason they were abandoned in the 1920s, only to return to the scene in recent years (Wright, 2009).


Prison Legal News, a leading advocate for the decent treatment of imprisoned human beings is leading the fight against the privatization of prisons due to the cruelty and poor conditions that exist in many of these facilities.

8. Interpreting Services

Interpreting services in prisons and jails should be sufficiently available  to assure that the rules set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are fully implemented in jails and prisons in the United States (Terhune, 2004-2005). Cureently ADA is routinely violated in these facilities due to a lack of its enforcement (Vernon, 2009).

Compliance with the stipulation to provide interpreting services is imperative if the isolation and vulnerability of Deaf inmates are to be reduced. Adequate interpreting and the full implementation of ADA are the keystones to equal treatment and access for prisoners who are Deaf (Musemerci, 2006).


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One thought on “The Horror of Being Deaf and in Prison

  1. My first thought is finding a group of law students to review their case’s to make sure that the process was handled correctly. Just like they do for death row inmates.


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