The horrendous injustices towards deaf inmates are not well-known. Talila Lewis and HEARD are working to change that.
To begin to understand the plight of a deaf prisoner, imagine being sent to prison in a foreign country. You can’t understand what orders guards are yelling at you each night. You can’t tell if a fellow prisoner is calling out a threat to you. You may not even understand exactly how you landed in prison in the first place. For the tens of thousands of deaf people who occupy our prisons, this is their reality.
Reality is a lack of access to communication with families and legal counsel, lack of access to services and programs available to hearing prisoners, the constant threat of abuse from fellow inmates, and the constant threat of punishment from a system that does not understand their disability.
In a population already dismissed by society for its transgressions, who speaks for deaf prisoners? For a long time, no one did, aside from their own families. Until 2007, when a tenacious law intern named Talila Lewis took on the wrongful conviction case of a deaf man in Washington, D.C.
“I was working as an intern for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia at the time, and this man kept writing to us to look at his case. He kept saying that someone lied, that he wasn’t supposed to be there,” Lewis recalls. “People dismissed him, assuming he was mentally disabled or had some other problem. But when I read his letter, I knew right away that he was deaf.”
After reviewing his case, she became convinced that not only was he innocent, but his rights had been violated by the officers who interrogated him by not providing him with an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter during questioning. Lewis says that the justice system simply doesn’t understand deaf culture and communication, resulting in wrongful convictions. She couldn’t believe that she seemed to be the only one who was appalled by this systemic problem.
“I could not find an attorney in the entire nation who would take on obvious cases of deaf wrongful conviction, for reasons of not having enough resources, or lack of cultural knowledge or competency, or it just wasn’t their priority. There was just no one.”
So Lewis founded HEARD—Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf—an organization dedicated to advocacy for deaf and deaf-blind prisoners to have full and equitable access to the justice system.
Now a lawyer and professor of criminal justice at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, Lewis serves as an advisory board member for the organization that she founded, dedicated to the concerns of deaf inmates and their families, and giving them a voice by working directly with prison systems and government to change the policies and ignorance that fail them.
As she worked on her cases, she learned that prisoners suffered beyond the injustice of being incarcerated when innocent.
“They’re telling me: ‘I’m being beaten daily. I’m being sexually assaulted daily. I’m being extorted daily. Is there some way that you can make it so that I live until you can get me out of here?’ And it wasn’t just one person saying this. It was all of them, saying the same thing to me,” Lewis says.
“Even those who were in prison for what they allegedly did, they are being treated so grotesquely. People would not believe how prisoners with disabilities—not just deaf—are being treated. We have a problem in the United States. It’s beyond words.”
Felix Garcia was in a Florida prison when he was sexually assaulted by two fellow inmates. He couldn’t hear them as they approached in the shower before the attack. As they overpowered him, he passed out, waking up later with blood on his face. He retreated to his cell, where he stayed for days; his face pressed against the wall, desperate to try and feel movement—to try and anticipate another encounter with his attackers.
“I was definitely targeted because of my deafness,” Garcia says, still incarcerated in Florida today. “We are looked upon as the weakest of the weak, and if we ask for help from staff, they send someone after us.”
Lewis says that deaf and other disabled individuals are at a higher risk for acts of abuse in prison, targeted because their assailants believe they will not be able to identify them as attackers to guards after the assault.
Often, abuse can come in the form of physical or emotional abuse from a corrections officer who is ignorant or insensitive to the challenges they face as a deaf person.
Shortly after Garcia’s rape, he got into an argument with prison staff after they wouldn’t give him batteries for his hearing aid. Pat Bliss, board advisor at HEARD and a paralegal who has been Garcia’s advocate for 15 years, explains what happened next:
“The prison nurse suggested that he hang himself. He thought about where his life was and his situation and he decided to do it. He hung himself in his cell, and was cut down before he died. After that, he was considered to be crazy. It was a horrendous time.”
Some corrections officers inflict physical pain as a response to a deaf inmate not following an order that they call out.
Jason Tozier is a former prisoner, or deaf returned citizen. He remembers a “shakedown,” where guards came in and ordered everyone out of the cell.
“I was sleeping,” Tozier recalls. “The guard roughed me up, suggesting that I ignored the commands. Then I was taken outside of the pod and thrown against the wall. He jerked my neck through a tactical procedure that severely injured my left arm, breaking a collarbone and left me with no check-in with the nurse for medical attention.”
When other inmates who witnessed the incident told the officer that Tozier was deaf, the guard stopped but showed no signs of remorse. Though he filed a complaint against the guard, no disciplinary action was taken.
“I became a laughingstock of the building after that,” he says.
“The prison nurse suggested that he hang himself. He thought about where his life was and his situation and he decided to do it. He hung himself in his cell, and was cut down before he died.”
Prisoners have contacted Lewis when they or other deaf prisoners are being harmed. She tells one story of a deaf and mentally disabled prisoner who was taken from his unit in retaliation for HEARD’s advocacy efforts for the inmates in a Florida prison.
“I get this relay message from Felix Garcia: ‘Urgent, they’ve taken Joe [pseudonym]. Please help,’” she recalls. “They took Joe to the worst dorm on the compound and left him there by himself all weekend. What was going on was sexual assault. I called the classification officer and demanded that they move Joe back to the deaf-and-disabled dorm.”
For deaf and hearing prisoners alike, another form of punishment for not following orders can be more terrifying than the threat of physical abuse: solitary confinement.
“It’s the absolute worst thing that you can do to a deaf person. Solitary confinement is torture. It leads to decompensation and mental illness,” Lewis says. “We are human beings and we are meant to have contact. With deaf people, what we are seeing is across the board, their decompensation happens at a much faster rate than hearing prisoners. The deaf person already doesn’t have one sense, so they’re relying on vision.”
Solitary takes that away from them, leaving them utterly alone.
Garcia has been placed in solitary many times, often as punishment for not following an order, or even for complaining when his needs are ignored.
“It’s very frightening,” Garcia says. “You never know when they are coming to teach you a lesson because you grieved for your rights.”
Lewis says that solitary is also seen as a fix for prisoners who report being abused or threatened. In the prison system, it can be seen as an easier way to protect a prisoner rather than getting an interpreter to find out what really happened. In effect, the deaf prisoners who complain to staff about abuse are punished with solitary, while their assailants stay in the regular prison population.
Lewis is emphatic about solitary confinement as inhumane punishment with devastating effects, not solely for the deaf but for all prisoners. Her testimony to Congress in 2012 resonated with Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
“I worked on one of the largest class action cases against the Federal Bureau of Prisons for their use of solitary confinement against prisoners at ADX Florence (a maximum security prison). It was beautiful to see Sen. Dick Durbin use the complaint that we drafted in our case, because we had submitted it the night before the hearing.”
The constant struggle for all deaf prisoners is one that the hearing world takes for granted: communication. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates access to communication for the deaf in prison, but its regulations often go unenforced or ignored by the prison system. It’s also outdated. For example, the ADA requires deaf prisoners have access to a Teletypewriter for the Deaf (TTY); however, most deaf people today use video phones to communicate using ASL. For the many deaf families with no TTY, this makes communication with an incarcerated loved one very difficult.
“My father does not have access to any accommodation,” says Mei Kennedy, a deaf woman whose father, also deaf, is serving a 108-month term in Pennsylvania. “The camp has offered my father the use of TTY, but none of our family members have access to TTY. We would have to call him by calling the office using a phone, which won’t work for us as we are deaf, to be connected to the TTY.”
Kennedy says her father feels isolated, and even feels that he is losing his ability to sign.
Even for hearing family members, communicating with a deaf prisoner can present challenges. “I think in November of 2011, TTY calls from prison became collect and no matter what we did we couldn’t find out the cause,” remembers Justine Garrett, a hearing woman who is engaged to a deaf returned citizen. “The FCC said they didn’t have jurisdiction. So we didn’t communicate by phone for the next year and a half at all.”
Lewis and HEARD launched a campaign, the Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign, to lobby the FCC to stop charging deaf prisoners for using TTYs and for prisons to provide video phones for the deaf. This reopened the possibility of communicating by TTY for Garrett and her fiancé.
“HEARD was great emotional support to me,” Garrett says. “And I felt like I was doing something productive just explaining the stuff that went on with the deaf guys. Talila made me feel like she had our back in any way that she could. I can’t say enough about what help she was to me personally during times when we would get hit with difficulties that seemed so unfair.”
Feelings of isolation and exclusion are also felt within the prison community itself. Deaf prisoners are often not able to participate in prison programs, because the system will not provide an interpreter for them.
Prison movies are not close-captioned.
“I really can’t stand it when I see all hearing inmates have more privileges than deaf inmates,” says Renny Harvard, an inmate in Texas. “For example, they offer all hearing inmates the vocational classes and training programs, and they are allowed to be transferred out of their units to other units for educational purposes. Deaf inmates are not allowed to be transferred out of their unit due to medical reasons and safety issues. Basically, they limit the opportunities and privileges to us because we’re deaf.”
A poor education places an even larger burden on deaf prisoners who, like their hearing counterparts on the inside, generally have a lower level of education. For many, their first language is ASL, and the ability to read and write English comes later in life with more education. A deaf person learning English is like hearing Americans learning a new language for the first time, often not starting until high school and unable to read and write complex sentences in that new language. Many in the prison system remain ignorant to this, or don’t want to go through the trouble of getting a prisoner an interpreter.
“Some people have a third-grade writing level,” says Jay Baldridge, a deaf returned citizen who is grateful for the advantage his education gave him in communicating with prison guards. Others are not so fortunate.
“To bring it down to their level is difficult. A deaf person can get overwhelmed quickly. They still might not understand you,” Baldridge says.
Like Garcia, whose ability to read and write English is at about the fourth-grade level, when he began to go deaf. In ASL, Garcia has no troubles communicating. But in order to respond to written contact, he relies on fellow prisoners to help him. His situation also contributed to perhaps his biggest tragedy. Garcia may be in prison for a crime that he did not commit.
He is serving a life sentence for robbery and murder, crimes that his brother has since confessed to committing and framing Garcia for.
“They blamed me for something my brother and sister did,” Garcia says. His own siblings testified against him in court. At first, Garcia was clueless as to what they had done.
“Without an interpreter present during questioning, he didn’t know what he was being charged with. He thought his brother and sister robbed someone,” Garcia’s advocate Pat Bliss says. “His trial attorney tried to tell the court that he couldn’t understand. The judge said, ‘We’ll let the jury decide if he’s deaf.’”
Lewis, Bliss and other advocates have no doubt that if Felix had had access to an interpreter during police questioning and at trial, his court decision would have been different. And although his brother has since admitted to an appellate court that he lied about Felix to save himself from the death penalty, Garcia remains in prison. Bliss says that they are out of court options.
It’s hard to imagine hope after so many sad accounts. Yet every prisoner and returned citizen I interviewed had a sense of hope. Knowing that Lewis and HEARD were continuing to fight for them brought some light into the darkness of a nearly hopeless situation.
“All in all, what HEARD has been doing is what sets our new movement in motion, raising awareness about the plights and struggles of deaf inmates,” Harvard says. “I believe that awareness will certainly help reawake the ignorant and remove the barrier of obscurantism.”
In between her job and other causes that she fights for, Lewis continues to work on cases, train lawyers in deaf culture, spearhead campaigns for reform in government, and support the prisoners and their families in the fight for equality in the prison system.
Lewis says she moved to Rochester to stir things up a bit, and get law students and others here engaged in advocacy.
“There’s a large deaf population here that understands the issues,” she says. “In D.C. there is a lot of interest, but no action. Rochester is a hotbed. I came here to create a legion of advocates.”
For the people that Lewis and HEARD serve, their advocacy has been lifesaving.
“HEARD and Talila are my champions in getting out the horrors that go on in the prison system against the deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates,” Garcia says. “Without them, some of us would be dead now.”