In Georgia, Imprisoned Deaf and Disabled People Don’t Stand a Chance

In Georgia, deaf people ensnared in the criminal legal system are routinely denied sign language interpretation and other accommodations, dramatically disadvantaging them while in prison and at every stage of their criminal justice proceedings. The ACLU on Wednesday filed a motion seeking a class action lawsuit on behalf of currently and formerly imprisoned deaf people in Georgia. The motion highlights gross violations of their constitutional rights. 

The criminal legal system is stacked against many of the most vulnerable Americans, including people with disabilities. At every stage — arrest, interrogation, trial, sentencing, prison, and parole — deaf people are more susceptible to going to prison more often, staying longer, suffering more, and returning to prison faster.  

Deaf people with other marginalized identities — including those who are LGBTQ and come from communities of color — fare even worse. Throughout the country, our system refuses to provide sign language interpreters and other communication access, as required by federal law. Our case against the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — calls out these institutions for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Constitution.  

As a co-founder and volunteer director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD), I have been working with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who are deaf and disabled for the last 10 years. Their experiences break my heart, haunt my dreams, and fuel my advocacy.

The problems they face are particularly acute in Georgia. 

Take our plaintiff Ricardo Harris. Ricardo was a star student at one of the few colleges in the country that provides instruction in sign language. While on winter break visiting friends in Georgia in 2013, this bright, Black-Latino deaf man was arrested and accused of murder. He was tried and convicted. Over the course of two and half years of incarceration, he was not provided qualified interpreters during police interrogation or for communication with his own defense attorney. Without interpreters or telecommunication access, he could not participate in his own defense or even begin to tell his side of the story. He has been in prison, effectively barred from communication with attorneys, advocates, and loved ones, including a young child, since 2013.   

Jerry Coen, another plaintiff in the case, was arrested for behavior related to addiction. He had tried to attend recovery programs, but could not find programs available in American Sign Language or a program that provided ASL interpreters. Like many people who use ASL as their only language, Jerry does not understand English.  

The isolation of prison was devastating for Jerry. Without videophones, he could not communicate with his family. So, once a month, his parents would make the seven-hour round trip in order to spend a few hours with their son in prison. These visits were the only connection he had to the outside world for the 10 years he was incarcerated. 

Jerry was regularly unfairly punished. The prison refused to use ASL interpreters to explain the rules or procedures he needed to follow, and he could not understand any of the written rules or information from the prison. Guards refused to use ASL interpreters when they thought he had broken rules. Disciplinary hearing officers refused to use ASL interpreters during hearings where they concluded that he had broken rules and set punishments. Jerry’s hands were handcuffed behind his back during these disciplinary hearings — sometimes so tightly that they left scars. He could not gesture or even try to write a few words in his own defense. Jerry spent a week in solitary confinement. His beloved father passed away just months before he was released in 2017.  

Another plaintiff, Jonah Wooden, was supposed to attend substance abuse classes as a condition of probation. These classes had no interpreters. Jonah spent months sitting in class struggling to understand the content. When he asked for interpreters, he was told that he would have to pay for them himself, even though federal law requires the program provider to ensure effective communication. After months of dealing with the frustration and isolation of sitting through classes without interpreters — and even trying to pay for interpreters before he realized he couldn’t afford them — he stopped showing up. He was arrested for violating his probation, and is now serving two years in prison.   

These are not isolated stories. There are hundreds more, in Georgia and throughout the country.  

The injustices faced by deaf and disabled people in the criminal legal system are not widely understood, well-documented, or sufficiently challenged. But the stories of Ricardo, Jerry, Jonah, and hundreds of other deaf and disabled incarcerated people, coupled with scant research, paints a bleak picture: The criminal legal system — from start to finish — consistently violates deaf people’s constitutional, civil, and human rights. 

We can and must do better. The ACLU and partners are seeking a class action lawsuit to ensure that the state of Georgia provides sign language interpreters and other needed auxiliary aids and services so that deaf people in its criminal legal system have the access that the law requires.  

This case sheds light on the horrors of being deaf and imprisoned in the United States. We hope it also serves as encouragement for incarcerated people; a warning to prisons; and a call to action for advocates, attorneys, and people across our country to do right by deaf and disabled people and to hold our government accountable when it fails to do the same.

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Dr. Timothy Leary

Remember, deaf people cannot hear, but they can definitely smell it when you pass gas.

Anne Roberts

That was a stupid and insensitive comment. I am quite sure you woldd not want to be in their position.

Anonymous

I can't believe you said that. Whether or not someone is deaf, you shouldn't say that. That is rude and insensitive.

Anonymous

what

Anonymous

Is this funny? Not.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Why are you deaf?

revolution deaf

That bad thing to against my brother and sister deaf that why hearing people some of them good and some them bad and international deaf council. Are coward in their own way and some deaf have small and big dream and we have short term goals and long one day i find one of deaf brother who ..he have big goal than other deaf didn't dare to do it his name was Marvin T. Miller who wish build deaf town for deaf people and hard hearing a big dream for deaf have a life there a job and friends and understand one of other and that kind dream where deaf people have their own flag a truly a call our very own native home and laughing and happiness life there so I wish other deaaf wake from their fake days of hard life so join deaf revolution fighting against hearing people and we most reach our goal to be anything we want one day be cop and fire fighter and doctor and other dream we are tired look down by racist of hearing people that my wish for my deaf brother and sister out there in world list to this ..

Anonymous

Total agree with you

Tenisha Crumpto...

My husband is experience the misconduct by The Warden and his staff at California Dept of Corrections and the Warden Michael Martel , the dept of corrections and the California governs office is aware and will not assist the family with investigation. They dept is covering for these corpt people. This is a medical facility

Anonymous

I have written to the ACLU on behalf of myself, a person with multiple sclerosis. I have got no help whatsoever. I find the ACLU now useless. I am glad that you are working for people who are deaf. There are many people who have lost their vision who have MS. About 4 people out of 7 people with MS have double vision. We spend over $60K/yr on medication to just slow the progression. I which the ACLU was of help but not for me. They are losing my money.

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