See Hear: Deaf prisoners sue, claiming rights violated

A weekly helping of news of interest to the deaf community, compiled by the See Hear team.

Two US prison inmates, one deaf, one hearing impaired, are suing the Kentucky corrections department, claiming that they are being discriminated against because the department is not providing the accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a lawsuit filed on 1 January, Oscar Adams and Michael Knights - serving 15 years and life without parole for sodomy and murder respectively - are demanding access to interpreters for medical appointments, video phones to see conversations in sign language and devices to help them hear guards and other prisoners better.

Their lawyer Deborah Golden told The Washington Post that prison for the men is "like being in solitary confinement even though you're in the middle of people".

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Lawyer Greg Belzley, who also represents the inmates, told the paper: "It's what happens when deaf prisoners aren't given accommodations that permit them to stay in touch with their own families" or "participate in religious services." He says he is appalled with the degree of isolation they experience.

A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections wouldn't comment on the specific case but said that they do provide telecommunications devices and interpreter services in their prisons.

The state of Virginia has already settled a case between deaf inmates and their prison service, and Maryland and Illinois are both involved in litigation about similar issues.

Adams and Knights aren't using their situation to apply for early release, but In August 2013 in the UK, a deaf convicted rapist Andrew Oruovo was sentenced to five years instead of six because a Norwich judge believed his deafness would make prison life "more difficult and more onerous".

A report by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Not hearing us: An exploration of the experience of deaf prisoners in English and Welsh prisons, was published in January 2013. It found that although jails are covered by the equality act 2010 and therefore have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for deaf and disabled people, many of the estimated 400 deaf inmates in Britain were still experiencing problems with communication and access to education.

This, according to the report, is because it is unclear what constitutes a reasonable adjustment and there is lack of clarity over who should be providing services like interpreters to deaf prisoners.

The report does mention examples of good practice like that of Shrewsbury prison, where staff and prisoners were taught sign language alongside each other. But over the years, prisoners in the UK and the US have expressed concerns about various issues they experience.

Top of their list has been health and safety. If the prison doesn't have flashing or vibrating alarms, how would they know to get out in case of a fire? They have reported that being unable to grasp some of what guards and prisoners say has led to accusations of selective hearing, and misunderstandings have led to unnecessary punishments. One prisoner said that being unable to hear the prison humour made him feel left out.

The 2013 report is based on answers to a questionnaire filled out by a small selection of people who work in the justice system, others who work with deaf prisoners and deaf inmates themselves.

A particularly important part of prison life is education. One hearing impaired inmate who responded to the report says he can't access 90% of the prison's classes without a support worker. "The rehab course which would help with my early release is not accessible". He says it was also a struggle to get exempt from a prison-wide earphone ban, so that he could wear them to raise the sound levels on computer-based course content.

Additional reporting by Emma Tracey

Next week, See Hear commemorates Holocaust memorial day with a special programme looking at the effects of the Nazi holocaust on the deaf community. Clive visits Berlin, and we also speak to a survivor who left Germany as part of the Kindertransport rescue mission.

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