Prison and Probation Offices Fail to Provide Effective Communication to Deaf Individuals, Leading to Longer Sentences, Harsher Punishments, and High Rates of Recidivism

June 20, 2018

MACON, Georgia — The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia, together with the National Association of the Deaf and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, filed a motion in federal court to pursue a class action lawsuit on behalf of deaf and hard of hearing people imprisoned in and released from the Georgia Department of Corrections. The proposed complaint highlights how prison, probation, and parole systems fail deaf prisoners – leading deaf people to go to prison more often, stay longer, and return more quickly. 

Prison administrators do not provide sign language interpretation to convey prison rules, to take classes required for release, or to participate in religious, medical or vocational meetings.  In addition, the prison system does not provide visual or tactile alerts for daily or emergency events. The prison system then punishes deaf people for violating rules, not responding to verbal commands and not taking required courses – all of which were inaccessible to them.

"Despite decades of federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, Georgia has utterly failed to provide any form of access to deaf and hard of hearing people in its prison and parole systems," said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf. "The prisons in Georgia have refused to provide deaf and hard of hearing people with qualified interpreters and accessible telecommunications devices such as videophones, making it impossible for them to call their loved ones, consult with their attorneys, engage in work release programs, access medical care, or any of the other services available to all other prisoners. These prison and parole issues are a national problem that must end, and it is our hope that this litigation brings that end sooner than later."

“American Sign Language and English are entirely different languages, complete with their own grammar, syntax and structure,” said Talila Lewis, Volunteer Director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD). “Georgia’s decades-long failure to provide qualified interpreters for imprisoned and returned people whose first or only language is ASL makes it all but impossible for them to access essential information about their cases, mandatory classes, prison policies and procedures, health and mental health care, parole and probation requirements, support after experiencing physical or sexual assault, and much more.”

After serving their sentence, previously incarcerated deaf people do not have access to information about the conditions of their release, probation guidelines or instructions from their probation officers. Consequently, deaf people are at greater risk of recidivism simply because the system is designed to prevent them from successfully reintegrating into society. This perpetuates a cycle of incarceration targeting people with disabilities.

The complaint also illustrates the human toll communication deprivation has on imprisoned deaf people.  Without interpreters or aids, GDOC inmates miss meals, showers, important announcements and medications because they are announced using only aural cues. They are unable to understand appointments with health care professionals, mental health therapy sessions and communication related to other life-threatening health conditions.  With no videophones to communicate with family, deaf prisoners cannot maintain community ties, and have greater difficulty re-integrating into society than their hearing and non-disabled peers. 

“We are enormously grateful to HEARD for its years of work elevating the stories of incarcerated deaf people, and leading us to this case. All the deaf people we were in contact with had been denied their right to communicate – with their attorneys, with their families, with medical personnel, with parole and probation officers,” said Susan Mizner, Director of the ACLU Disability Rights Program. “As a result, they have longer sentences, higher recidivism, and, we believe, high rates of being wrongfully incarcerated. Deaf folks are a clear example of how the criminal legal system fails to accommodate people with disabilities.”

“Everyone deserves a second chance. Deaf individuals deserve the same opportunities as other incarcerated individuals to access educational and other programs that can reduce their sentences, get out of taxpayer-funded prisons, and rebuild their lives,” stated Sean J. Young, Legal Director for the ACLU of Georgia. "Central State Prison’s failure to provide those opportunities constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of our U.S. Constitution.”

The complaint alleges the GDOC is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the United States Constitution. It was filed in the United States District court for the Middle District of Georgia.

The press release is online here: https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-seeks-class-action-behalf-georgian-deaf-prisoners-denied-communication-access

The press release is interpreted in ASL online here 

The complaint can be viewed online here

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