Being in prison is hard. Being deaf in prison is even harder.
You hear about lawsuits being settled where a deaf person missed multiple meals a week because he couldn't hear the cafeteria announcement, another one being handcuffed behind his back, preventing him from signing (a.k.a. communicating) and then you hear about prisoners who can't access a deaf-friendly phone. This last one seems to be the norm in prisons, according to multiple deaf advocacy groups.
"I was truly pissed with my experience in prison and jail," Hunta Williams tells me via a video interview that was later transcribed by an ASL interpreter. “I feel like, in prison there was a huge information barrier since there was no access to a video phone.”
Williams, who was in jail for little over a year, says he went a whole year without being able to contact his family. Video phones are telecommunication devices equipped with cameras that allow deaf people to use American Sign Language (ASL) when talking on the phone.
"I had asked to use a TTY and they denied it," he says. A TTY is a typewriter-equipped phone. Although most deaf advocates agree it's outdated technology, even this wasn't available to Williams. Prison officials told him it was broken.
I feel like, in prison there was a huge information barrier since there was no access to a video phone.
Williams doesn't seem to be alone in his experience. A representative from the National Association for the Deaf estimates that only about 10 to 20 prisons in the country have video phones for deaf inmates.
"Basically, there was a huge lack of communication," says Williams.
About 7 percent of inmates in state prisons are deaf, according to 2004 data from the Bureau of Justice. Hunta Williams was one of them. And while the Americans with Disabilities Act states that deaf people must get "equal opportunity" to accommodations in "public places," Williams says that was far from the case in his government-funded prison.
But a guy in Louisiana is trying to change that.
"By and large, federal, state and local prisons do not—and refuse—to provide sign language interpreters," says Scott Huffman. who is affiliated with HEARD, an organization "Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf."
Only about 10 to 20 prisons in the country have video phones for deaf inmates.
On the surface, Huffman seems like just another man from Louisiana. But he's oddly invested in rights for deaf people even though he's not deaf himself. That's because he learned ASL in prison. That's part of the problem, he says.
"My job in the prison was to be a sign language interpreter," says Huffman. "For me, it benefited me greatly. However, at the time I was still learning sign language. When I would interpret, I’m sure there were lots of gaps lots of missing information.”
That's why Huffman is now on a mission in every jail, starting with prisons in his home state of Louisiana.
"Last year we were successful in installing 17 video telephones in 9 different facilities," he says proudly.
He's hoping this will eliminate the need for prisons to rely on makeshift interpreters. By law, ASL interpreters have to be impartial, but Huffman says there's no way he could be impartial when the men he was interpreting for were his friends.
We were successful in installing 17 video telephones in 9 different facilities
But there's still a lot of work to be done. Huffman hopes to spread the movement into federal prisons. We reached out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to see how many video telephones or TTY/TTD devices they had available, and here's what they told us:
"The Federal Bureau of Prisons has one institution with a Video Remote Interpreter (VRI) and another institution with three VRIs and one Video Relay Service (VRS). TTY is available at all 122 Federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons continues to assess VRI and VRS technologies."
Huffman believes that what's holding back prison officials is the hassle associated with installing and operating these devices.
"The federal government pays for the equipment. It’s of no cost to the prison. The big hassle is how do we monitor it? You can record it.”
Still, for deaf prisoners like Hunta Williams, who rely on pokes and hand signals from other prisoners to get around, it's a worthwhile hassle.
“I want to say something to Deaf people out there regarding your accessibility: Accessibility to video phones CAN move forward!”