Phone Justice for Deaf Prisoners: TTY or VP?

By Jean F. Andrews

A Deaf female prisoner wrote,

“Videophones are the only way I can effectively communicate with my family. The unit I am on is equipped with TTY phones; however, calls are limited to 15 minutes, by the time the connection is made added to the length of time it would take me to type and receive messages, using a TTY phone is counterproductive. The possibility of miscommunication is high. The cost of the phone call is too high for such limited communication.”

(Letter to HEARD, February, 11, 2013).

A male prisoner in Maryland wrote similarily:

“The TDD conversation takes significantly longer because I have to read rather than listen to what is being said. It’s also a financial burden to my family and loved ones because the institution uses a private service company to provide relay services. Inmates at this institution are required to make collect calls when using the TDDs and are charged an eight dollar connection fee as well as 30 cents a minute. I cannot use a prepaid system, which the hearing inmates use, so there goes my telephone rights again.”

(Letter to HEARD, February 10, 2013).

Today’s TTYs are Antiques

TTY Phone Image: E. Michigan Deaf and Hard of Hearing

The most commonly used technology in prisons are TTY technology which enables the phone to be connected to a device or coupler that allows a conversation to be typed out between the caller and the receiver. It necessitates a TDD device, or use of the computer on both ends. Today, TDD devices are becoming obsolete. Videophones are much better as they allow Deaf prisoners to use their native language rather than typing words.. Since English is not the first language of most Deaf prisoners, and many have low English reading levels, so communicating on a TTY is not effective.

[Editor’s note: TTY stands for Teletypewriter. TDD stands for Telecommunication Device for the Deaf. The terms are considered interchangeable.]

Video relay services can provide videophones if Internet access is available for transmission purposes (e,g, ;

Today, phone justice for Deaf, Deaf blind, Deaf-disabled, Hard of Hearing, and Disabled prisoners is still expensive and inaccessible. Many phone providers use voice command phone systems to initiate calls, thus Deaf prisoners must depend on another prisoner or staff member. There are also high cost factors, lack of availability of equipment, and lack of access to what technology is available. But positive changes have been undertaken by the Federal Communications Commission, which has issued measures for reform and cost regulation (FCC)1.

Like the two prisoners mentioned above in their letters, making a call on a TTY or even using a videophone requires more time than making a voice telephone call used by hearing prisoners. In addition, many Deaf prisoners with hearing families that do not know sign language must use relay interpreters in their videophone calls and this makes the communication take even longer. Further, some Deaf prisoners have family members who speak Spanish so they need additional Spanish speaking relay interpreters. All of this means that these calls cost more money for the Deaf prisoner.

However, on August 9, 2013, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) limited the high costs charged by the Inmate Calling Services providers (ICS) to family members of all deaf prisoners. For years, ICS has charged these excessive rates for calls through TTY technology that requires more time to make videophone or voice telephone calls. To build on the reform initiated by FCC in 2013, on October 22, 2015, FCC added further steps to curtail excessive rates paid by Deaf prisoners by making a bold move to cap costs that sometimes skyrocket as high as $17 per minute. The FCC also banned add-on fees imposed by ICS providers (FCC News, October, 22, 2015).

Lack of Equipment

Even before the prohibitive cost factors, availability of videophone equipment is not consistent. Indeed, in many jails and prisons, although telephones are located in a room that is accessible to all of the prisoners, the videophone and TTYs are often located in special, locked rooms for security. Thus, the deaf prisoner must make scheduling arrangements to use this equipment and security guards are often not always available when the deaf prisoner has scheduled time. Another problem is that TTYs or videophones may be locked in a closet with no one knowing how to connect them or to use them. Another consideration is that the prison or jail needs a high speed broadband connection for videophones to work effectively.

[Editor’s note: Many facilities are unwilling to implement videophones at all. They cite cost and security as their reasons for this, both of which have been completely disproved. Due to nothing other than intransigence, These institutions continue to rely solely on the decades old technology of TTY]

Modern Videophone

Loss of privacy is another consideration. As one prisoner wrote,

“While they DO have a TTY machine here, but it doesn’t work properly — AND the only time we are able to use that machine is when someone is available to “monitor” it. What that means is my “counselor” has to take time of her work to sit beside me and read our conversation” (email to HEARD, January 10, 2013). And still another prisoner complained there was no power outlet near the phone for the TTY to continue working.”

(Letter to HEARD, January 10, 2013).

Families also present barriers. Too often they own cell phones, which cannot connect to prison/jail TDD equipment. A text telephone would solve this problem but many prisons and jails do not have them. Even with the TDD technology, many Deaf prisoners have poor English skills and it takes them longer to read and write messages.

Installing videophones in all jails and prisons is the solution to providing phone justice for Deaf prisoners. Also, jail/prison officials need training in how to use them and make them available to Deaf prisoners in the same manner and capacity telephones are provided for hearing prisoners. Phone justice for all.

1The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government, created by Congressional statute (see 47 U.S.C. § 151 and 47 U.S.C. § 154) to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories (

Jean F. Andrews is a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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