Saturday, July 20, 2024



The penal system is failing deaf inmates. Here’s what advocacy groups are doing about it

Construction of the new Graterford prison complex in 2013. March 17, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongResults


Editor's note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the nature of the National Association of the Deaf's work and the specifics of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (3/21, 11 a.m.) This story has been updated with comment from the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. (3/21, 5:25 p.m.) The title of this story has been updated to more accurately reflect its reporting. (3/23, 4:45 p.m.)
In Sept. 2011, officers from the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) found 20-year-old “Mr. Lee” in the passenger seat of a stolen vehicle.

Officers arrested him and drove him to the 15th District Precinct in the Mayfair neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. During the ordeal, Mr. Lee’s glasses fell off and were discarded. He tried to explain that he needed his glasses to see, but couldn’t: Mr. Lee communicates via sign language, and his hands were handcuffed behind his back.

On the day of his arraignment, no one told the court that he was deaf, and the television on which he watched the judge speak had no closed captioning. Officers told him that he could go home.

No one explained to Mr. Lee that the judge charged him with auto theft, a felony.


This case is one of several found in the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) recent review of the City of Philadelphia and PPD’s adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

Title II regulation of the ADA states that “public entities shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, members of the public and companions with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.”

The review found that the PPD did not comply with the law by failing to “provide auxiliary aids and services necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals who are deaf.”

Across the country, there is ample evidence that police departments and prisons do not provide adequate resources for deaf inmates. Philadelphia is one part of the puzzle on the infringement of the rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners.

Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), based in Washington D.C., is the only organization in the United States to have a national database for deaf inmates in prisons around the country. According to the database, there are currently 500 known deaf inmates in prison, but there are likely thousands of inmates in the system who are not accounted for due to the lack of record keeping in prisons across the country.

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Talila A. Lewis, the executive director and founder of HEARD, said the organization was started because “there was a need that wasn’t being filled.”

"If we're going to have prisons, we're going to have hierarchies; people with disabilities are at the bottom."
Talila A. Lewis

“We didn’t have another option,” Lewis said. “If we’re going to have prisons, we’re going to have hierarchies; people with disabilities are at the bottom.”

And it’s not the cost of providing adequate aids for deaf prisoners that’s a barrier, Lewis said: “I’m tired of folks making excuses. Videophones are free.”

(It’s important to note that PPD and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons (PDP) are separate entities. According to PDP spokesperson Shawn Hawes, the PDP does have systems in place to assist inmates who need language services, including those who are hearing-impaired. TTY and videophone technology are available in most, if not all of Philadelphia’s six prison facilities, and deaf inmates are placed in facilities that have those services. There is also a designated social worker who speaks sign language and serves as an in-prison translator for this population, as well as a tracking system for deaf inmates.)


Another major issue for deaf inmates across the country and in Philadelphia occurs before they enter the institutions. Often, lawyers who represent deaf clients do not know sign language and are not able to effectively communicate the happenings of the proceedings.

Howard Rosenblum, executive director of the Maryland-based National Association of the Deaf (NAD), said NAD is partnering with the American Bar Association to publish a guideline for courts to hire appropriately qualified and certified sign language interpreters with legal training for all aspects of court proceedings and court-ordered classes.

According to Rosenblum, who is also an attorney, it’s rare for deaf individuals facing criminal prosecution to get an interpreter for trials. And though the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 bars discrimination on the basis of disability by programs receiving funds from federal agencies, and the ADA similarly prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities by state and local government agencies, he said, “almost no prisons or jails are fully complying with [these federal laws].”

NAD is in the process of filing a complaint against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, in an effort to force the DOJ to push compliance of the Rehabilitation Act in federal prisons and the ADA in state prisons and county jails.


In another case from the DOJ’s findings, 23-year-old “Mr. Adams” was arrested after throwing his bracelet during his brother’s sentencing hearing. The bracelet hit two people and officers handcuffed him from the back so Mr. Adams was not able to use ASL.

The detective in charge of the case chose an unqualified radio room staffer to interpret for Mr. Adams, and when he requested a qualified interpreter, the detective stopped the conversation.

The PPD did not get a qualified interpreter and Mr. Adams was left in detention for 16 hours.

One of the directives of the PPD is Directive 151-5, which states, “According to Pennsylvania law, upon the arrest of any person who is deaf and prior to interrogation, PPD detectives shall make available to the person who is deaf an interpreter who shall be present with the person who is deaf throughout the interrogation.”

"Almost no prisons or jails are fully complying with these federal laws."
Howard Rosenblum

The effectiveness of the directive is unknown because there is no record of how many deaf people the PPD encounters on a regular basis and Philadelphia, like many cities, does not have a database of how many deaf prisoners are in its penal system.

HEARD and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) partnered to create a “Know Your Rights” guide for deaf people who must interact with the police. Lewis recommends that a deaf person in police custody say, “I’m deaf/disabled/blind, I require an interpreter, I require an attorney and I choose to remain silent.”

According to Rosenblum, “The best thing is to set up records and record their requests” so there is documentation of a request for an interpreter and services.


Philadelphia’s correctional facilities have one local role model for adapting practices of equality for all inmates.

In Schwenksville, a town an hour outside the city, the State Correctional Institution at Graterford is creating change with the help of the Deaf Community Action Network (DeafCAN!), an organization based out of Christ the King Deaf Church in West Chester which coordinates weekly literacy and decision making classes for deaf inmates. The group has fought for the access of sign language interpreters and videophones in Graterford.

William Lockard, program director of DeafCAN!, believes that through the group’s efforts, the typical day of a deaf prisoner in Graterford is “much different and better now than what it used to be.”

“They’ve gone from having no phone access to TTY to having a text phone. What they don’t have are amplified phones or captioned phones,” he said. “They did begin just providing interpreters for religious services. That’s a big step.”

While there are positive improvements inside Graterford, Lockard said there is still a need for staff education on dealing with deaf prisoners — including education on the differences between signing and gang signs.

“Many [deaf inmates] feel that they serve longer sentences than hearing inmates because they don’t have access to” college courses and other in-prison courses that allow for an earlier release, he said. And oftentimes, “they would rather finish the maximum sentence than deal with parole. Probation officers are way behind in providing interpreters for those out.”


In 2013, Al Jazeera aired a series called “Deaf in Prison” that featured the PDP’s social worker for deaf inmates, Robin Ahern. In her interview, she corroborates much of what we’ve reported here, including that it is more difficult for deaf inmates to communicate with their families and to participate in programming that would allow for an early release.

“Deaf inmates don’t have equal access to services that they need and they just need someone to be an advocate for them,” she says (13:55).

The reformation of the penal system for deaf inmates must occur, and the first step is for wardens to identify their respective facilities’ deaf prisoners. Officials cannot serve an unknown population. Beyond that, change can start with something as simple — yet essential — as a videophone.

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