Not In My Backyard: “Prison fully accessible (in ASL and English) to Deaf inmates” finished at the bottom of this week’s Laurent, South Dakota, poll. The poll invited readers to rank their preferences for community services and businesses they would want to see in the planned Deaf town, before they would actually move there. An ASL- and English-friendly mental health center fell somewhere in the middle of the list, between a farmer’s market and a restaurant with an international menu. The prison, probably to no one’s great surprise, ended up as the least desired facility.
The Fate of Deaf Prisoners: 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.
Why Should We Care?: From a humanistic viewpoint, Deaf prisoners deserve the same opportunities for rehabilitation as do hearing prisoners. As members of the Deaf community, we should be concerned about Deaf prisoners. If they were members of our community before they were imprisoned, there’s a good chance they will be back when their sentences are complete.
Everyone is better served if Deaf prisoners have access to psychotherapy during imprisonment. They can benefit from to dealing with whatever it was that led them to become involved in crime in the first place, and hopefully, learn more effective coping skills. If they are given opportunities to learn a new trade or develop new skills that will help them gain employment later, Deaf prisoners may be less likely to resort to criminal behavior in the future.
While some people may fear having a prison in their backyard, in all likelihood, an ASL-accessible prison could potentially be a bonus for a Deaf community. Such a prison could offer a number of job opportunities for Deaf people (think cafeteria, guards, social workers, educators). With accessible programs in place, Deaf prisoners might have a better chance of straightening out their lives and returning to society in a better position to contribute. And last, if it was your child, your family member, or your best friend who ended up in prison, for whatever reason, what kind of treatment would you hope the prison offers Deaf people?