On July 10, 2014, HEARD Founder spoke at the Federal Communications Commission Workshop on Further Reform of Inmate Calling Services about the ongoing crisis in our prisons reletad to conditions of confinement for deaf and disabled prisoners. The FCC posted the video of the workshop, but captions were not always clear and the interpreter was cut out of the video frame.
HEARD supporter and CDI translated the long version of TL’s speech into ASL and we have provided the English speech below to ensure that the information is fully accessible.
The English version is available below:
First I would like to acknowledge members of the Deaf and Disability Communities who are here today to signal our deep and unwavering commitment to universal access and equality. Humble thanks also to the FCC for hosting this workshop and for inviting me to sit on this esteemed panel.
One year ago I sat in this very table. I was hopeful that our leadership would take positive steps toward ensuring that inmate calling services were affordable, and accessible for all prisoners and their families.
Among other things, I shared that inmate calling service providers and departments of corrections across the nation were in violation of federal disability rights laws that mandates equal access to programs, services and activities for all people with disabilities. I explained that accessible telecommunications is paramount for deaf prisoners because for them incarceration is a terrorizing experience filled with language deprivation, physical and sexual abuse, and depressing isolation. Finally, I reminded the Commission that despite the fact that the FCCs own reports indicate that TTY relay calls are only 12% of the total relay volume, and that 75% of all accessible calls made in the U.S. are made via videophone, that only three prisons across the nation had installed videophones and none that we knew of had any other auxiliary aids to support equal access to telecommunications for deaf, signing, hard of hearing, or speech challenged prisoners.
Today, we are here yet again holding out hope for meaningful action from leadership because notwithstanding the Commission’s September 26th order that rightfully capped interstate rates, thousands of deaf and disabled are completely unable to communicate with loved ones, attorneys and advocates simply because of their disability.
While we applaud the Commission’s efforts to ensure that “rates for Inmate Calling Services are just, reasonable, and fair,” today we remind the Commission that there is no fairness without equality.
Anything short of a Commission order mandating universally accessible Inmate Calling Services will leave countless prisoners and their family members exactly where they were prior to the Commission’s decision—completely disconnected.
The expensive and inaccessible telephone systems that exist in prisons across the nation serve as extremely effective barriers to communication for most deaf prisoners. Despite the demonstrated need for videophones and captioned telephones for deaf prisoners, most deaf prisoners can not effectively communicate with anyone. In fact, now, only six prisons across the nation have installed videophones and none that we are aware of has other auxiliary aids such as captioned telephones or voice carry over features.
HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign, now in its eighteenth month, mobilized unprecedented participation in any FCC Notice and Comment period from deaf prisoners and community members. More than one hundred deaf prisoners submitted comments as did numerous family members of deaf prisoners and deaf family members with hearing incarcerated loved ones. Comments also poured in from the deaf and signing community and powerful organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union on the importance of ensuring that prisoners with disabilities have access to telecommunications.
These prisoners’ comments spoke directly to the isolating impact of inaccessible technology, sky-high rates, and additional fees being charged to prisoners using relay, that in most cases prevent them from communicating with anyone outside of prison. None of these prisoners requested special treatment. Instead they requested operational, affordable and equal telecommunications, including videophones, captioned telephones, working TTYs, and rates that take into account the despairingly slow, and consistently unreliable communication via TTY.
Last year, I believed that simple principles of equity and justice would lead those in positions of power down the right road, so I spared many details.
I did not tell you that in the past three years, there have been just three weeks where I did not receive a report from a deaf prisoner, an advocate, or loved one of physical or sexual assault of a deaf prisoner. That countless deaf prisoners do not sleep or shower for fear of being sexually assaulted; or that deaf prisoners have traded their bodies to make telephone calls with loved ones through hearing prisoners who have full access to telecommunications.
I did not tell you that as rampant as sexual assault of deaf prisoners is, not one of more than 500 deaf prisoners we have found can access the STOP RAPE hotlines that hearing prisoners can access 24 hours/day 7days/week.
I have not told you how multiple cases of possible deaf wrongful conviction we can not pursue because we can not effectively communicate with individuals who use American Sign Language as a primary or only language; or how attorneys write to us to share their barriers to effectively representing clients who are deaf in jails across the nation for lack of telecommunications access.
I did not share deaf prisoners report abuse most often after filing grievances about lack of access at prisons, including lack of access to telecommunications. Or that solitary confinement is often used as a substitute for the provision of accommodations for and protection to deaf and disabled prisoners, which sends most anyone into a tailspin .
I share this to illustrate two things. The first is that there is an ongoing crisis in our prisons related to conditions of confinement particularly for deaf and disabled persons. Secondly, I want to dispel the myth that this is a deaf or disabled person problem, or an incarcerated person problem. This problem is an American and societal problem—particularly one of able bodied free persons in position of power who have yet to take meaningful action to remedy these injustices by holding prison industry corporations and departments of corrections accountable for failure to adhere to federal disability rights laws.
We again seek guidance from the Commission, and where necessary the Department of Justice, that will lead to full access to telecommunications for deaf and disabled prisoners. Blocking access to telecommunication for this group not only further isolates these individuals from their families and the community, but makes them prime targets for abuse.
The current systems places deaf prisoners at even more risk of abuse because staff and prisoners know that they have very little recourse with respect to filing written grievances and obtaining outside support and advocacy. Deaf prisoners must have access to effective and affordable telecommunications so they can communicate with advocates and attorneys.
Departments of corrections across the nation continue to be sued as a result of their failure to provide equal access to communications to deaf and disabled prisoners—including failure to provide equal telecommunications access. While each of these departments of corrections tend to settle, also agreeing on videophone and other auxiliary aid installations, these settlements cost DOCs and taxpayers dearly, and take many years to resolve.
Since all departments of corrections and ICS have the same requirements under federal laws to individuals with disabilities, and since this responsibility is carved into this “evolving standards of decency” backdrop, it is important for prisons officials and prison accreditation corporations to be fully aware of disability rights issues and how to of handling them. Corrections officials also should always be aware recent developments in the disability rights realm, especially due to the very high incidence of abuse of prisoners with disabilities in prison settings.
Please ensure that all ICS companies have a deaf and disability access plan in place. Find ways to incentivize innovation related to disability access to increase the likelihood of compliance. These plans should, at base, ensure that relay numbers and toll free numbers are not blocked and that deaf prisoners can benefit from the same discounts provided to hearing prisoners. They also should ensure that deaf prisoners have access to these systems to the exact same extent as hearing persons. Most importantly, installation of videophones, captioned telephones, and other auxiliary aids, should commence immediately.
Moreover, the FCC should create national standards that provide guidance about disability, disability as related to telecommunications access, functional equivalency, and about the technology that exists and is acceptable and accessible for deaf people and people disabilities.
Footnote  Deaf prisoners are often punished for their failure to obey oral commands, for using sign language to communicate, for failure to follow rules and procedures that were never communicated to them, for missing counts that they were unaware of, and for filing grievances about these persistent inequities. Advocates and attorneys need to be able to communicate in sign language with most of these individuals to assist them with the grievance processes and to provide meaningful support.