Imagine that someone you love is in prison. And, the only way she has to communicate to the outside world – family, friends, attorneys – is through Morse Code. Tap each letter out, one word at a time, painstakingly slowly … and try to understand the response that comes back in Morse Code as well. To add insult to injury, she will be charged a dollar for each minute she is tapping away.
This is essentially the situation for prisoners who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have speech disabilities. They cannot use the standard pay phones in prison, and the only means of accessible telecommunication to the outside world is through a Text Telephone (TTY) machine. This machine has a modified keyboard, specific rules on how to use it, and it transmits each letter and word slowly.
When it was invented 50 years ago, it was useful. But its technology is so outdated that most deaf and hard of hearing households have never seen a TTY machine, much less used one.
Federal disability rights laws require that people with communication disabilities have the same opportunity to converse with the outside world as the rest of the prison population. Yet, in most prisons and jails, they have limited or no access to such telecommunications, and what access they do have comes at a higher price than what the hearing prisoner population pays.
The ACLU has submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission urging it to provide clear guidance to prisons and jails on the range of auxiliary aids and services that prisons should provide to ensure equal and effective communication access to prisoners with disabilities.
There are easy fixes to this problem. For most people who use sign language to communicate, videophones– easy to set up and simple to use– are now the standard technology, and for people who are hard of hearing, amplified phones or captioned telephones are the standard technologies. Yet, with very rare exceptions, prisons do not provide these accessible technologies.
Studies have shown that prisoners with strong ties to home and an outside support system are less likely to return to prison and more likely to successfully reintegrate into society. We need to ensure that deaf, hard of hearing and other prisoners with speech disabilities are not further left behind.