Deaf in Prison: Examining Social Exclusion Within Systems

ISE prison imageIncarcerated populations are already in many ways invisible to us. Their needs are easy for society to ignore, and their voices are silenced.

But what happens when a person is marginalized within this already increasingly marginalized space?  What is it like to be denied the very small amount of basic human rights even afforded to the general population of prisoners? What is it like not to be able to communicate your needs within a system that already does not hear you? What is it like to be deaf in prison?

On Wednesday, October 22, the Adler School Institute on Social Exclusion, Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice, and Department of Public Policy and Administration host a special event at the school’s Chicago campus to learn about the issues and help develop a plan for collaborating on an advocacy initiative to support the mental health and wellness of those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing in prison.

This campus Common Hour event is also free and open to the public. It takes place noon to 1p.m. at the Adler School, 17 N. Dearborn St., in Community Hall. RSVP to  Guests must check in at the front desk when arriving on campus.

Glimpse into the world of deaf people incarcerated in American prisons as we watch the documentary “Deaf in Prison.”  Deaf people experience disproportionately high rates of abuse and violence within the prison system, and are increasingly vulnerable to assault.  According to HEARD, Helping Educate to Advance Rights of the Deaf,  80% of the incarcerated people with whom it has worked have experienced physical or sexual assault.*

Most prisons in the U.S. receive little oversight of whether they follow American Disabilities Act regulations.  Most completely ignore the need for language services to be provided.  Far too few programs are set up to help foster communication and provide interpreters for deaf people in prison. As a result, deaf and hard-of-hearing people are too often unable to make phone calls, access classes and other services within the prison, or even communicate with guards and fellow inmates.

The isolating nature of prisons only increases for those who are deaf.  Though there are thousands in prison who are hard of hearing, the numbers are not tracked, and many people are falling through the cracks.

“Deaf in Prison” makes it clear that this isn’t just about prisons, but about the overall criminal justice system, where deaf people are disproportionately represented.

Many who are deaf and hard-of-hearing are faced with injustice, discrimination, and a complete disregard for their needs throughout the process.  One man in the documentary, for example, was not given an interpreter in his trial–thus unable to answer the questions he was asked, and not given the opportunity to provide testimony for himself.

Some end up serving longer prison sentences as a result of their disabilities. One woman in the documentary notes that her parole hearing continues to be pushed back because of the increased difficulty of having an interpreter present at the hearing.

HEARD Founder Talila Lewis speaks throughout the documentary about how important it is to advocate for those who are deaf in prison, noting that this isn’t about “special treatment,” it’s about equality.

As students, faculty, and community members who care about mental health and social justice, we absolutely must advocate for this population.  Those who are deaf in prison make up a group that is marginalized, mistreated, and excluded within an already tragically mistreated and excluded group of incarcerated people. It is imperative to educate ourselves and others, and then take up the call for advocacy and social change.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons user Thomas Hawk.


* An earlier version of this statement has been updated with more accurate language provided by our colleagues at HEARD.