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.