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Population management strategies for deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders. (Feature).

Author's Note: Points of view in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

An estimated 30 percent of offenders are deaf or hard of hearing, often referred to as the "invisible disability." There are countless offenders residing in state and local correctional facilities who have hearing loss but have not been identified. Of these, the vast majority are hard of hearing and may not even realize they have a hearing loss, or are simply overlooked because hearing loss is not associated with any physical characteristic that distinguishes them from other offenders.

However, correctional facilities housing offenders who have been identified as deaf or hard of hearing must adhere to federal mandates regarding equal access to prison services, programs and activities. Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that correctional facilities provide deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders with effective communication. Although challenged by the state of Pennsylyania in 1998, the Supreme Court has since ruled that ADA applies to every state and local correctional facility in America.

For offenders with hearing loss, effective communication usually means that officers' directives, health care, education, legal proceedings and all other communication must be presented visually. In order for a deaf offender who uses sign language to receive medical services, an interpreter is always necessary. However, for hard-of-hearing offenders who speech-read (i.e., read lips), health care providers should face them and speak slowly, free of visual obstructions such as facial hair or chewing gum. Under ADA, providing a sign language interpreter and making communication visible or otherwise accessible is called accommodation.

Deaf and Hard-of Hearing Offenders

Deaf offenders are described as those who have a severe to profound hearing loss and are unable to understand speech, with or without the use of amplification such as hearing aids. Hard-of-hearing offenders typically have a mild, moderate or even severe hearing loss. They may be able to understand speech in specific conditions, such as when using hearing aids and communicating one-on-one in a small, quiet room with good lighting. Linguistically, deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders are a diverse group and may use spoken English, American Sign Language or a combination of both.

Hearing loss is the most prevalent health care concern in America. It not only impacts offenders' communication needs, but their social and educational development as well. The average deaf offender reads at a third-grade level, which meets the federal criteria for functional illiteracy. Therefore, using writing as a visual means of communication is ineffective for many deaf offenders. Additionally, deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders are often poorly versed in the social norms of those who do not have hearing loss. For example, among deaf people, information is often more freely passed on to others than in hearing society, a trait that sometimes earns deaf offenders the title of "snitch."

Deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, use any number of different spoken and signed languages, and are diverse in their perspectives. However, their common experience is that they benefit from visual communication, whether it is sign language, mime, drawing pictures, pointing, gestures, flashing lights, television captions, writing notes or speech-reading.

A Crash Course: Assistive Devices 101

There are several electronic devices available that can be used to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders. One benefit of using signaling technology, such as visual fire alarms, is that deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates do not have to rely solely on other offenders in the event of emergencies. Recognizing that technology is not fail-safe, facilities should also carefully define procedures for deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders to follow in the event of a fire or other disaster. Assistive technology is generally a reasonable, onetime expense, with occasional replacement of the required equipment.

Vibrating Alarms. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice handles awakening and attendance to work details for deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates by providing a small vibrating alarm clock to each offender with hearing loss. When offenders arrive at the facility, they are told how they can request one of these alarm clocks during their orientation. Once the alarm is set, it is placed under the offender's pillow, setting off a vibration when it is time to awaken. This practice effectively allows offenders to take responsibility for their own work attendance.

TTY Equipment. A TTY, or teletypewriter, is an electronic device used by deaf people to make phone calls. The telephone receiver is placed on acoustic couplers, and the deaf or hard-of-hearing offender types and reads the response on an electronic display. Although TTY is the preferred label, the device may also be called a TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) or a TT (text telephone). Facilities can obtain a portable TTY that can be carried anywhere in the building, or may install a permanent, pay TTY telephone unit. According to ADA, correctional facilities must not only make TTYs available to deaf offenders, but they must also place signs in visitation areas informing the public about who to contact to request the use of a TTY.

Amplification. While deaf offenders generally use a TTY to make phone calls, hard-of-hearing offenders may be able to use amplifiers. Amplifiers can be built into telephone handsets or may operate as a separate device that fits over the earpiece of a telephone. Other kinds of amplifiers are available for use in educational or treatment settings, such as a headset with a transceiver, worn by an offender with hearing loss. In a classroom or instructional setting, the teacher or counselor wears a small clip-on microphone with a transmitter that works in conjunction with the transceiver.

Television Captioning. Captioning makes television and videotapes accessible to offenders with hearing loss. Captioning is similar to subtitling, as the captions are placed onto the screen during manufacturing and become visible automatically when the video is played, provided the television captioning function is activated. Fortunately, captioning technology has advanced over the years, and today, captions will appear with a simple click of a button on a remote. The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 mandates that all televisions with a 13-inch or larger screen manufactured after 1993 must contain a caption decoder as standard equipment.

Although nearly all televisions manufactured today have the necessary equipment to play captions, not all programs or videos are captioned. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 dictates a progression of captions on programs and videos, requiring that by 2006, 95 percent of all new programming must be captioned. Therefore, even when the television caption function is on, some of the programs may not be captioned. This is often true for classic television programs and older movies.

For Sign Language Users Only

Although his case was dismissed in 1999, Joseph Heard spent 22 months behind bars in Washington, D.C., due to a clerical error. Heard, who is deaf and uses sign language to communicate, wrote notes asking for help many times, but was not provided with an interpreter. Released in 2001, he is currently suing the district facility for violating his constitutional rights. Failure to provide interpreters to deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders can lead to serious legal problems for an institution.

How do I know if an interpreter is necessary? ADA stipulates that correctional officers consult with offenders to determine their communication needs. For example, both deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders may be sign language users. It is important to find out the primary language of offenders, and if it is sign language, an interpreter must be obtained. Never assume that because offenders with hearing loss can speak some English they do not need a sign language interpreter. They may be able to express themselves in English, but still require the services of an interpreter in order to receive information back from the other parties.

Most facilities do not have enough inmates with hearing loss to fiscally justify hiring a full-time staff interpreter. Therefore, decisions have to be made about when to provide one. Medical care, disciplinary and internal legal proceedings, and education are obvious settings in which gestures or other makeshift visual communication will not be adequate. However, for recreation or routine job duties, in many cases, natural gestures are sufficient. For job training or to deliver a reprimand on the job, an interpreter is needed.

How do I know if the interpreter is qualified? Most states have a commission to serve people who are deaf and hard of hearing that can provide correctional facilities with information on interpreter qualifications. For example, both Arkansas and Texas provide screening of interpreter skill levels, rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (novice to expert). Facilities in need of services should request a level-3 or higher sign language interpreter. States that do not have their own evaluation systems in place can rely on national certification standards, provided by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (

Officers should allow interpreters some time to meet with offenders to become familiar with their communication abilities. Always confer with interpreters to determine if they are comfortable with the offenders' communication style before starting, as deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders communicate using a wide variety of methods and levels.

How do I get an interpreter? Interpreters work as independent contractors, usually through a referral agency. They can be difficult to locate in rural areas and generally require 48 to 72 hours notice prior to an assignment. If there is an event scheduled that requires the services of an interpreter, such as a disciplinary hearing or medical appointment, staff should contact a supervisor several days in advance so that he or she can go through the proper channels to locate and schedule these services. Most states' commissions for the deaf and hard of hearing are able to provide facilities with information on where to obtain an interpreter.

Who will pay for interpreting services? Title II of ADA mandates that a correctional facility must provide equal access to its activities, services and programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders, including the responsibility of paying for sign language interpreting services.

Why not just ask another offender to interpret? When incarcerated with deaf offenders, hearing offenders often begin to pick up American Sign Language. Sign language interpreters are highly skilled professionals with superior knowledge of legal and other specialized language. Offenders who volunteer to interpret may not present information impartially or hold information confidential from the rest of the inmate population, which is something a professional interpreter can be relied upon to do.

Rethinking the Paradigm

Often, correctional facilities have policies and procedures in place that unintentionally create communication barriers for offenders with hearing loss. An important way to accommodate the communication needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders in accordance with ADA is to review and revise existing policy. For example, TDCJ, which houses nearly 300 deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders, has developed several proactive policies for population management of these groups.

Grouping of Offenders With Like Needs. In Texas, many disabled offenders are housed together in sheltered programs administered by its Physically Handicapped Offender Program. Deaf offenders who use sign language live together in one facility, mostly in one cellblock. This serves three important purposes: to increase officer awareness of the deaf population, who become more visible when seen signing among one another; to lower population management costs by centralizing interpreting services; and to provide socialization opportunities for offenders who have limited communication and social skills. In addition, hard-of-hearing offenders who do not function well in the inmate population at large may be grouped together in the sheltered program so that they can access accommodations at a centralized location.

Tracking of Disabled Offenders. Not all offenders with hearing loss need intensive support services, however, some may eventually require placement in the sheltered program as their functional hearing decreases. Texas uses a computer program to track the locations of all offenders with hearing loss. Coupled with case management follow-up services, tracking offenders with hearing loss helps monitor deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders' changing accommodation needs.

The Identification Tag or "Pass." At a minimal cost, TDCJ has developed an identification tag or pass that can be worn on the inside or outside of an offender's garment. Offenders who do not wish to make their hearing status, public can keep the pass in their pocket and show it only as necessary. This helps resolve misunderstandings with officers and reduces disciplinary actions that may not have occurred had the offenders been able to hear officers' directives.

Handcuffing Procedures. Handcuffing offenders during transport is an essential safety procedure at every correctional facility. However, handcuffing a deaf offender who uses sign language is similar to putting tape over the mouth of a hearing offender. The National Association of the Deaf Law Center has developed a model policy that recommends that correctional officers "remove the handcuffs of booked and classified detainees who are deaf to allow for effective communication if the removal of the handcuffs does not result in a direct threat to the health and safety of any person in a jail or cause an undue burden or fundamental alteration of the custodial activity."

Like other offenders, deaf offenders can be handcuffed for the purposes of transport, for example, from pre-hearing detention to a disciplinary hearing. However, during a hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders who use sign language should be released from handcuffs to allow them to participate in the proceedings, in accordance with their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution and their right to effective communication under ADA. Deaf offenders who present a security risk can be accommodated by handcuffing their hands in front of their bodies, allowing them to use sign language, but restricting their range of motion.

Telephone Access. A common problem for deaf offenders is receiving equal telephone access. Examples of such policies include time limits on phone calls and the restricted availability of the TTY. While people speak at approximately 150 to 220 words per minute, even the best typists only type about 45 words per minute using standard TTY equipment. That means it can take deaf offenders up to five times longer to make TTY telephone calls than their hearing peers. Simply put, deaf offenders will need additional time to complete their calls.

While some facilities provide telephone access during specific hours of the day, deaf offenders often find themselves waiting until the evening, when an officer has time to retrieve the TTY or take them to it. While hearing offenders can contact their attorneys during the day, deaf offenders may be unable to make calls until they are permitted to use the TTY in the evening. Correctional officers should familiarize themselves with the location of the TTY at their facility so it is easily accessible when deaf offenders are eligible to make calls.

"He Needs a Note-Taker, A Test-Taker..."

It is a myth that ADA mandates special treatment for disabled offenders. As applied to deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders, the purpose of ADA is to ensure equal access to health care, education, recreation and treatment in state and local correctional facilities. For example, access to communication with health care providers is not a privilege, but a human rights issue. A simple way to evaluate whether an accommodation is needed is to compare the activities of deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders with those of offenders who hear. If hearing offenders have access to a television in the day room, then deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders must also have access. In this case, providing equal access is a simple task, as most televisions come equipped with captioning capability.

Another myth about ADA is that compliance is always expensive. Many electronic communication devices used by deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders require only a onetime purchase, such as televisions with captioning capability, vibrating alarm clocks, telephone amplifiers and TTYs. In many cases, a change to policy and procedure, as demonstrated by the National Association of the Deaf's model policy on handcuffing, will satisfy ADA requirements for equal access. Interpreters represent a more costly accommodation, and are required for most profoundly deaf offenders who use sign language. Typically, a small percentage of all offenders with hearing loss will need interpreting services.

Perhaps the most serious barriers that correctional facilities face in providing accommodations are the attitudes and awareness levels of their employees. To successfully manage deaf and hard-of-hearing offenders and maintain ADA compliance, the biggest challenge is to ensure that correctional officers know when there is an offender with hearing loss, as well as how to accommodate that offender. Otherwise, assistive equipment available in a correctional facility will not be used and stereotypes about hearing loss will continue to impede compliance with federal law, placing facilities at risk for legal actions by offenders with hearing loss.


Americans With Disabilities Act. 42 U.S.C.A. 12101 et. seq. (1990).

Christensen, J. 2002. Disabled students' services disrespected. Berkeley, Calif.: The Daily Californian, April 23.

Deaf inmates gain communication access in New Jersey settlements. 2001. Silent News, 33:6.

Jensema, C.K. 1990. Hearing loss in a jail population. Journal of the American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association, 24(2):49-58.

Miller, K.R. (in press). Forensic issues at deaf offenders. Beaumont, Texas: Lamar University.

Ritchie, B. 2002. Leveling the field. Berkeley, Calif.: The Daily Californian, April 15.

Vernon, M. 1995. New rights for inmates with hearing loss. Corrections Today, 57(2): 140-145.

Vernon, M. 1996. Deaf people and the criminal justice system. In A deaf American monograph, ed. M. Garretson, 46:149-153. Silver Spring, Md.: National Association of the Deaf.

Zingeser, L. 1999. Communication disorders and violence. Hearing Health, 15(5):26-30.

Katrina R. Miller, Ed.D., is a former correctional employee and nationally certified counselor who has worked with deaf offenders in both correctional and treatment settings. She is an assistant research professor at the University of Arkansas Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Persons Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing. For more information about offenders with hearing loss, contact Miller at (501) 686-9691.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Miller, Katrina R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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