Appeared in Beaumont Enterprise, March 11, 2012, Sunday. Opinions.
Deaf Suspects and Inmates: Barriers in the Criminal Justice System
On February 29, 2012, a Beaumont Enterprise reporter wrote: “Trying to arrest an armed and apparently intoxicated man took an unusual turn Monday in Orange when police found out he was deaf.” What happened in Orange, Texas was not an “unusual turn.” In fact, many deaf suspects who are arrested and incarcerated face these same barriers.
Being deaf is not just about hearing loss. Indeed, Deaf Americans make up a unique minority who much like other ethnic groups in the US, have their own language, culture, beliefs, mores, organizations, literature and art. Signing deaf adults constitute about 500,000 to 1 million deaf persons in the U.S. who primarily use American Sign Language (ASL). About 10 percent of the deaf population earn university degrees and are bilingual in English (reading and writing) and ASL taking on jobs as teachers, college professors, lawyers, businessmen and other profession. About 30 percent are semi-lingual, having impoverished skills in both English and ASL. These “linguistically incompetent” deaf adults are most vulnerable in obtaining fair treatment in the criminal justice system.
Typically during an arrest, police rely on lipreading, speech and writing—all ineffective modes of communication. Police may handcuff the suspect with his hands behind his back thus cutting off communication through gestures and signs. This is analogous to putting duct tape on a hearing person’s mouth. When police show the deaf suspect a small card with the Miranda Warning written on it and ask them to read it, many cannot. In fact, many deaf adults read on the average of the 3rd grade reading level. The Miranda is written between the 7th to the 9th grade reading grade level. Even if an interpreter signs the Miranda, research has shown many deaf adults do not have the conceptual knowledge about their Constitutional Rights to fully comprehend it. There have been six reported cases that resulted in motions to suppress the Miranda statements because police had failed to administer the Miranda correctly. In fact, research shows that deaf suspects have only been administered the Miranda fairly only about 30 percent of the time.
The Beaumont Enterprise reporter commented about a news release said, “It was difficult to get statements after they arrested him.” It would be difficult for the police if there was no certified sign language interpreter present.
Similarly, jail bookings, including the medical and psychological intakes are seldom done with an interpreter present so the deaf suspect does not understand what is happening to him or her. Deaf inmates’ stay in jail or prison is filled with fear, anxiety and horror according to Dr. McCay Vernon, a forensic psychologist who wrote a compelling article for the American Annals of the Deaf titled, The Horror of Being Deaf and in Prison. Because deaf inmates cannot communicate with other inmates or the correctional officers their stay in prison is as if they were placed in isolation. The majority of deaf adults read at the 3rd grade level or below so speaking, lipreading and writing English are not effective means of communication. Messages sent across the loudspeakers and memos posted on bulletin boards are not accessible to prison inmates.
Research shows that jail and prison handbooks are written at the 11th grade or above reading level. Thus, deaf inmates with low reading levels cannot read them nor do they have someone to explain the rules of the jail or prison. In addition, educational and rehabilitation programs that are offered to hearing inmates such as GED classes, substance abuse classes, sexual and violent abuse programs, religious services and vocational training are not accessible to deaf inmates because no interpreters are provided and course written materials are written above the 7th grade reading level.
Deaf individuals are entitled to basic rights granted by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by state statutes, and state constitutions. To ignore these communication barriers that deaf suspects and inmates face violates the American with Disabilities Act. And to not remove these barriers deaf suspects in the criminal justice system may result in costly lawsuits as other states have found.
[Thank you Jean, for taking the time to reformat this article for us.