Sunday, April 22, 2007

408: RANT: We Can't See the Jailbirds Signing

So Daphne Wright's story has come to the next chapter. The Argus Leader reports:
Daphne Wright, spared a death sentence by a Minnehaha County jury, soon will join five other women serving life without parole in the South Dakota Women's Prison in Pierre.

Wright, 43, is deaf. While state Corrections Department officials say they'll make accommodations for that, in most respects the Sioux Falls woman will be treated the same as the other lifers and for the most part, the same as the other 320 or so inmates in the prison at the east edge of the capital city.

"The same?" Just once I'd like hearing people to understand that when you put a Deaf person in jail you condemn them to several years of enforced and almost total isolation. I'm just saying. I think jail is a bitch for Deaf people, much more than for hearing people. Does this mean Wright doesn't belong there? No, she does. But...

The Alternative Solutions Center talks about this same issue:
As deserving of their punishment that some Deaf criminals might be, none of them deserve the cruel and unusual punishment of inaccessible communication during their prison time. Even with the ADA and constitutional guarantees, too many Deaf prisoners have their rights violated every day. They are denied access to certified sign language interpreters for court hearings, disciplinary meetings, and educational classes. Deaf prisoners have been punished unfairly for not following guards� orders because the guards did not know they were Deaf or were unable to communicate with them. Many prisons lack flashing light systems, TTYs, videophones, and captioned televisions. Deaf prisoners also face dangers of physical abuse and isolation.

It's more than just that though: they lack regular and consistent access to any of the rehabilitation facilities afforded to normal prisoners. Unless jails suddenly start having ASL interpreters available - or require all their prison staff to learn ASL - Deaf prisoners probably won't get the same kind of rehabilitation and preparation-for-release training that prisoners who can hear can access. This demands a bit of pity for the prisoner, but also worry - is this person ready to be released to our community?

Oh, yes, legally the jail is required to provide such access. But debates about what access is necessary - debates about whether the cost places undue burden on the jail - and of course the never-ending obsession some hearing people have with saying "Those Deafies just want everything and never stop complaining!" - are sometimes insurmountable obstacles. But it's not just for the benefit of the prisoner - it's also for the benefit of the communities to which that prisoner is going to be released. Deaf Civilians have a responsibility to make sure that access happens in prisons, because the prisoners are eventually going to be released to the Deaf community.

This is not just an American problem. In the UK, the BID Services with Deaf People have a "Deaf Prison Project:"
The aim of the project is the reduce the sense of isolation and the Double Sentence experienced by Deaf people within the Criminal Justice System, primarily those who are in prison, by improving access to information and services.

Prison was also the subject of a Deaf TV Programme Soap Opera called VEE-TV in which one of the main characters, Nicky showed with agonizing clarity what a Deaf prisoner's experience could be like.
Because of bad behaviour, Nicky, who is in prison after a string of incidents culminating in the theft of a computer from the college, has been transferred from an open prison to one with a much harsher regime. The prison officer warns him to keep in line, but Nicky can’t lipread or understand what’s being said. His incomprehension is interpreted as insolence.

Wright will be in jail for life. While I feel her crimes were such that she needs to be there, it's hard for me to see how this system helps her rehabilitate and change. (And isn't that the point?) If anything, the enforced social isolation might make her more dangerous, and might be a danger to her mental health. Just wish I had an easy solution.


mishkazena said...

Upon reading his comments, I contacted the writer and described to him the obstacles the Deaf face in the prisons, including severe isolation and constant violations of ADA. Like you and ASC said, this is cruel and unusual punishment for Deaf.

Dianrez said...

This unfortunately has the ring of truth. Deaf prisoners have less rights than others in the same situation and those who are (in time) released back into the community are always the worse for the experience.

Mentally ill deaf prisoners are sicker. Those without skills have not improved, or may have learned criminal skills. Those with little education are no better off. Those with bad attitudes are more dangerous. Those who believe they were innocent consider the community against Deaf and is not to be trusted.

The prison system is a community in itself with different rules and norms than the outside. These rules often put the Deaf prisoner at a disadvantage, even at risk.

The Deaf community could consider organizing visitor teams, just as religious groups do. They could go to the prisons and try to advocate for individual prisoners' equality at a minimum, or bring in materials to help them prepare for release.

For people like Daphne, options are more limited, so visitors could concentrate on promoting mental health, adjustment and expression through many avenues, such as arts, writing, making videos, and materials for study by social researchers.

Joseph Rainmound said...

I think a local visiting group would be great! Who knows if the locals have the motivation though :(
DianeRez, I agree totally. And Mishka - thks for contacting these people

Dennis said...

I agree that deaf people face many more obstacles in prison than hearing people. Two things come to mind.

First, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. Of course this applies to everybody.

Second, if the deaf community interacted more with the hearing community, maybe the ones who hear would understand more.

I know I certainly do, after gaining a very close deaf friend.

Just my two cents.

Eitar said...

Okay... why not relocate all of America's deaf prisioners to one ward somewhere if its cruel the way its set up now? Secondly, the woman is lucky to be alive! She knew exactly what she was doing...ofc there are consquences. We deaf people already know that life consists of an us and them. Them being the bigger and badder group...this woman wasn't born deaf yesterday- she already knows that her rights are limited by means of access. I'm sorry to sound oppressive when I say this but- TOO BAD! She got what was coming! AND if she put AS much energy in receiving access as she did in mutilating and scattering the poor woman, she will get her rights met in jail. Deal with it.

Joseph Rainmound said...

That's definitely also a valid reaction.