Deaf prisoners are trapped in frightening isolation

In this June 18, 2018, photo, Jerry Coen speaks to a reporter in Atlanta. Coen, a deaf former inmate, spent 10 years in a Georgia prison after several alcohol-related arrests and said he was denied access to programs that could help him overcome his alcoholism and anger issues. (AP Photo/Brinley Hineman)

Sara Novic is a Deaf writer and assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University. Her first novel, "Girl at War," was released by Random House in 2015. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. The Deaf community uses a capital "D" to differentiate between people who identify with Deaf culture and identity, and the physical lack of hearing. To learn more about the disability community, watch "United Shades of America" on CNN Go.

(CNN)Jerry Coen, a former inmate of the Georgia state prison system, was clean-cut in a bright Nike polo when we connected on Skype. Though we had never met before and were hundreds of miles apart, we were tethered to one another by a shared language and community, and he gave me a smile that mirrored my own -- one of relief at being able to communicate directly to another Deaf person in American Sign Language (ASL). It's a simple act that, for a long time, Coen was denied.

"From the minute you go in, you're trapped in every way," he said. "You're trying to communicate but you can't understand the rules, or any of the information from the loudspeaker; it's a total communication breakdown."
On Wednesday, the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles and several individual defendants, alleging systematic discrimination and abuse of its deaf and hard-of hearing inmates. Coen, 44, is one of 14 plaintiffs in the suit who says he suffered under the department's ableist practices, including denied requests for sign language interpreters, denial of medical and mental healthcare, and violence at the hands of guards.
Sara Novic
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects basic civil rights for deaf and disabled people, is supposed to apply to incarcerated people. The law guarantees "reasonable accommodations" for disabled people to have equal access to public places. For deaf people, reasonable accommodations often include sign language interpreters, hearing loops or other assistive technology, access to videophones and closed captions. The reality of our nation's prison systems, however, reflects not only a failure to reach the standards of that law, but of widespread neglect and willful mistreatment.
    Coen, like a lot of deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates, has limited written English skills, making communication outside of sign language extremely difficult. ASL is a distinct language, with a syntax closer to Japanese than English, rendering even written materials inaccessible to many. Like other populations vulnerable to abuses by the prison industrial complex, deaf and hard-of hearing people experience risk factors starting in childhood that increase their chances of incarceration -- chief among them is language deprivation. When a child doesn't gain language fluency during the brain's "critical period" from 0-5 years old, one's capacity for intellectual development is diminished substantially. Since over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, language exposure requires a proactive approach that many just don't get.
    Subsequent isolation leads to increased instances of learning disabilities and emotional and mental health problems. Difficulty communicating with one's family also puts deaf children at increased risk for sexual abuse, more than three times that of their hearing peers.
    These factors compound at the intersections of race, ethnicity and class, so deaf and hard-of-hearing people of color experience the worst rates of abuse throughout all stages of interaction with the justice system. Once incarcerated, this trend continues: According to the ACLU complaint, plaintiff Carlos Herrera, who understands no written English, was unable to read the "Offender's Handbook," leaving him unaware of the administrative grievance process for him to address the other abuses he suffered.
    Coen, who filed several grievances over the course of his detainment, said his complaints were dismissed or his paperwork eternally left as "pending." His family drove hours to visit him, in part because he was unable to contact them via phone. (According to the Deaf rights advocacy group HEARD, only seven prisons in the country have videophone access for deaf inmates.) Coen was disciplined for "bad behavior" for not following the rules he couldn't understand, at one point placed in solitary confinement for a week. He still doesn't know why he was there, having been denied an interpreter at the disciplinary hearing. He was also handcuffed with his hands behind his back at the hearing, preventing him from using gesture to communicate.
    "They say I had anger problems. Of course, I had anger problems. I was frustrated!" Coen says he had no access to any of the rehabilitative programs run by the prison -- 12-step, anger management and educational programs are all rendered useless for deaf inmates without interpreters. He also told me he was denied an interpreter for doctors' appointments, at which he says he tried writing back and forth but that the "words were too hard." He adds he was also denied mental health care, though he repeatedly requested an evaluation -- at one point writing, "I really need help."
    "The guards were so cruel," Coen said. "Once one of them got mad and took my hearing aid and crushed it." Coen filed a grievance over the exchange, but the Department of Corrections rejected the complaint, writing the destruction of his property "does not effect [sic] him personally."
    Being a deaf inmate is often referred to by disability-rights advocates as a "prison within a prison," with little to no human interaction among fellow inmates, guards or their families. ACLU Disability Rights Program Fellow Zoe Brennan-Krohn said in an email, "it can be almost impossible for incarcerated people with disabilities to share their experiences of trauma and discrimination with the outside world."
    It's no surprise, then, that with no access to mental health or educational services, fewer tools for reintegration into society, and often no clear explanation of the terms of their release, deaf inmates return to prison faster than their hearing counterparts. While austerity measures are frequently used as excuses for not providing accommodations, the provision of an interpreter would certainly be the lesser monetary burden on taxpayers than reincarceration over a miscommunication.
    A Georgia Department of Corrections spokesperson, Joan Heath, told the Associated Press Wednesday that the agency doesn't comment on pending litigation, but that improvements were being made within the system to better things for hard-of-hearing inmates.
    The experiences of these 14 plaintiffs are but a small sampling of the abuses endured by deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates across the country, whose cries for help are so often ignored. While most departments of corrections do not keep track of the number of deaf inmates, HEARD estimates tens of thousands of deaf people are currently incarcerated. And that's to say nothing of those who are harmed long before they reach a prison: the deaf people killed by police for failure to respond to verbal commands, who aren't properly Mirandized or provided interpreters at their arrests or legal proceedings, who face a jury far from their peers, who are coerced and wrongly convicted.
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    It's difficult to get people to pay attention to the rights of inmates, especially those who are doubly or triply marginalized. "The intersection of disability discrimination with our criminal legal system leads to enormous injustices," said Brennan-Krohn. "We hope more people will learn about these glaring violations of civil rights and human rights."
      In the current political climate, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of injustice across society. Even in my own work as an advocate for the Deaf community, I too often allow the rights and needs of those incarcerated to fall by the wayside. But trickle-down liberation doesn't work. Rather, if we allow authorities to exploit the civil rights of the most vulnerable, those violations serve as precedents to strip the rights from others.
      America is fast learning that the way we treat inmates and detainees is a reflection of our country's values, and inextricable from our own moral and political futures. We must remember to continue speaking for those whose voices have been quite literally stolen away by a system designed to keep them silenced.