By Jean F. Andrews
In a southern state in a Federal prison, Jill is serving a 10-year term. While sign language interpreters are provided for her when her attorney comes to visit or during her hearings with the judge, she does not get interpreting services within the prison. For example, she does not fully understand the rules of the prison nor can she read the inmate handbook because it’s written at too high of a reading level and there was no interpreter present to translate it for her. Jill has coped with this awful situation by teaching Jane – a fellow inmate – basic sign language. So now she uses it to communicate with Jane, when playing cards, or during other leisure activities and in the cafeteria. Jill also asks Jane to come with her to interpret during medical exams, at the dentist office, and during disciplinary hearings. Jill has relayed to me that she is not comfortable with this arrangement because Jane likes to gossip Jill’s business to the other inmates and this has created humiliating embarrassment. Jill is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Jill’s case of having a fellow inmate act as her interpreter opens up a Pandora’s box. There is the problem of professional incompetence, the lack of confidentiality, potential conflict of interest, and perhaps subjecting her to misrepresentation. Deaf inmates like Jill have to resort to this practice because criminal justice officials oftentimes do not understand the critical need for deaf inmates to have certified sign language interpreters. Providing sign language interpreters 24/7, round-the-clock would make the costs unreasonable. However, it is reasonable to expect that interpreters will be provided during time such as the prison intake where important medical and psychological information is collected, during the prison orientation so that the inmate knows the rules, in translation of the prison handbook (many of which are written at the 11th grade or above), and during any GED classes, other educational classes, or religious services that the prison provides. In addition, if the deaf inmate faces disciplinary charges, then calling in a certified interpreter would be imperative.
It is a myth that if Jane is taught some sign language by Jill that she is now ready to function as a sign language interpreter. ASL interpreting is a technical skill that comes with professional training in the understanding and production of translating from one language to another. It also involves providing translation to the meaning of the communication if it gets lost or confused or misunderstood. Interpreters also need to know about Deaf culture and how to work with deaf persons, how to determine the deaf person’s language levels and so on. All of this entails cultural, cognitive, linguistic knowledge and highly technical skills in producing and comprehending signing. In addition, trained interpreters must follow a code of ethics, confidentiality, and know about current legislation that provides interpreters for deaf persons such as the ADA.
Jill’s dilemma is not just hers but it happens to other prison inmates as well.
Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist, Department Chair and Professor Emeritus of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University