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Why Many Deaf Prisoners Can’t Call Home

Faulty and outdated technology is pervasive, and upgrades are slow in coming.

Calling home from prison is cumbersome and expensive. For deaf people behind bars, it’s even tougher, sometimes impossible.

The technology provided to deaf people in most US prisons is a teletypewriter, a machine developed in the 1960s that requires users to type their messages. The system is rife with problems. Most deaf households have switched to some kind of videophone, which allows users to speak in sign language. But prisons across the country still use the outmoded system, known as TTY or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), leaving many deaf inmates cut off from loved ones.

This article was published in collaboration with WIRED.

“Right now, most deaf detainees and prisoners have absolutely no telecommunications access,” said Talila Lewis, volunteer director of the nonprofit Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf communities (HEARD), which has been working to improve conditions for deaf people in prison since 2011. “This completely violates federal disability laws left and right, all day every day.”

TTY messages are sent through telephone lines and are either read by a relay operator who speaks them to a hearing individual over the phone, or appear on a small screen at the top of another TTY device. Users of TTYs say the process is incredibly slow; it requires the caller to be fluent in written English (instead of American Sign Language or other sign languages) and familiar with 50-year-old technology.

The calls are often garbled and easily interrupted. Prisoners report that the machines are frequently broken or unavailable. The relayed call is sometimes blocked entirely, or charged as a long-distance call even if the ultimate recipient is in the same town. The text-based phones not only make it difficult for deaf prisoners to call family members, but also to contact legal services or crisis hotlines.

Janet Lock, a deaf prisoner in Texas wrote to HEARD to say that the TTY technology was hardly worth the trouble, even when it worked. “The unit I am on is equipped with TTY phones, however calls are limited to 15 minutes, by the time the connection is made [plus] the time it would take for me to type and receive messages, using a TTY phone is counterproductive,” she wrote. Hers was one of over a hundred letters HEARD collected in 2013 to submit to the Federal Communications Commission. “The possibility of miscommunication…is high,” Lock said. “The cost of the phone call is to [sic] high for such limited conversation.”

If deaf inmates are trying to reach their deaf friends and family, the person receiving the call must also have a TTY to answer. But most deaf individuals have switched to video relay in the last several years, leaving prisoners no way to call.

“I have deaf brothers and some deaf friends and they all use video phones, they no longer use TTY. Relay won’t accept to talk between two deaf people,” Mary Ann McBride, in prison in Michigan, wrote in a letter to Lewis. “I really need to talk to my family because I am serving a long indeterminate sentence.”

Some prisons are installing videophones, but typically only after lengthy litigation. Since 2010, at least eight states have been sued for their lack of phone access for deaf prisoners. Prison officials in Idaho, Virginia, Florida, Maryland and Kentucky have settled and agreed to install videophones; lawsuits are still pending in Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts. Organizers with HEARD persuaded Louisiana to install videophones in its state prisons without going to court.

States “always lose in the long run and the taxpayers foot the bill,” Lewis says. “And deaf people and their families are suffering.”

Prison officials often cite concerns over costs and security. Videophones rely on internet connections, to which officials are wary of giving access—although the phones don’t allow users to surf the web. The systems themselves can be provided free by the makers, and calls through a video-relay service are paid for by the FCC out of a fund financed by a small tax on people’s phone bills. What costs money is the Internet connection, and any equipment the prisons buys to record and control video calls.

“First an institution calls up and says we need VRS (Video Relay Services). Then that same organization has a security team that says, are you crazy? You’re letting in an unrecorded, wide-open portal to the world?” said Chris Talbot, CEO of Tidal Wave Telecom, which sells prisons security technology to record and control video calls. Recorders cost around $5,000, Talbot said. “We’ve had recordings where inmates have exposed themselves to interpreters. It’s inevitable. [And] they’re worried about nonverbal communications, if they’re wearing a bandana or subtle markers.”

Prison officials in Virginia, which installed video phones in 2011, say they’ve had no major security issues. “The videophone calls are recorded as are those of all other offenders. The calls are reviewed on a regular basis with an interpreter,” said Barry Marano, the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the Virginia Department of Corrections, in an email. The state currently has 16 deaf inmates. “The overall impact,” Marano said, “has been positive.”

There is no official count of how many people in US prisons are deaf, but a 2015 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 6 percent of state and federal inmates in 2012 reported having a hearing disability.

Most of the lawsuits that have led to videophones are broad cases about conditions for deaf prisoners. Many inmates report that they don’t have access to ASL interpreters, especially during important interactions like doctors’ appointments or disciplinary hearings. They’re unable to participate in many work programs, AA meetings, or classes. And prison orders—like calls for head counts or meal times—are often given orally.

The ability to call home is especially important for deaf prisoners, who are often surrounded by people who don’t sign. Some deaf individuals have reported being separated from each other because officers worry they will coordinate riots or gang activity through sign language.

“Essentially you end up with deaf inmates who may have been sentenced to 10 or 15 years in prison, but for all practical purposes they’re now sentenced to 10 or 15 years of communicative solitary confinement,” said Dennis Cokely, director of the American Sign Language program at Northeastern University and an expert witness in several lawsuits involving deaf prisoners.

Michigan is one state facing a class-action suit over the treatment of deaf inmates. Chris Davis, a staff lawyer with the Michigan Protection Advocacy Service, estimated that the state had 150 to 250 deaf individuals in custody. According to the complaint, a phone call through a TTY device costs roughly five times a regular phone call, $23 for a 10-minute call, for half as much communication.

“Some of them have told us they haven’t spoken with loved ones for many months or even a few years,” Davis said. “Others are cut off because they are unable to write.”

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections said he could not comment on pending litigation. In their response to the suit, corrections officials argued that TTY machines are sufficient, and that it was the responsibility of deaf families to obtain a TTY if they want to speak with loved ones in state custody. “They are no different than any prisoner whose family or friends may not have access to telephone service or prisoners who wish to send an email to family that does not have access to a computer,” officials wrote.

The spread of video visitation, which has been replacing in-person visits in jails and prisons across the country, is no substitute for video phones, advocates say. Video visitation doesn’t always allow remote calls—it can require the visitor to travel to the prison to sit in front of the screen. The services can be expensive, compared to the free calls prisoners could make by videophone. And they’re only available during limited visitation hours, instead of the more frequent phone access many prisoners have.

“If we’re talking about affecting change for deaf and hard of hearing inmates, it’s all about the attitude of the correction officials,” Dr. Cokely said. “You can put in all the hardware you want, all the technology you want, but if correction officers and other prison employees don’t have the right attitude, then it doesn’t much matter.”