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Arizona prison reform policies ought to include considerations for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, advocates say

Photo of Arizona Prison intake process
In this file photo is depicted as the typical intake process of a new inmate.
(File Photos/DigitalFreePress.com)
Arizona Commission hosts ‘Denied Access’ virtual event to spread awareness
By Leslie Chapman | Special to the Digital Free Press

Last week the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing hosted a virtual event titled “Denied Access: Why prison reform policies must include communication access for deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates.”

The event included featured guest speaker West Resendes, a staff attorney for the Disability Rights Program and a policy fellow for the Justice Division at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nikki Soukup, director of public policy and community relations of ACDHH, said that the goal of the event was for the community to learn and have a better understanding of the issues that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals face, including language deprivation, mental health and the health care system overall.

“With this event, we are increasing awareness to the important issue of effective communication and the lack of in the prison system, on a national level and statewide,” Ms. Soukup said. “Access to communication is vital to the human existence, and without such access, one does not thrive.”

Mr. Resendes’ reported that between 35 to 45% of all prisoners experience some degree of hearing loss.

According to Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “[N]o qualified individual with a disability, shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”

In Arizona, there are at least 250 incarcerated deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Arizona Department of Corrections facilities, but this is expected to be an undercount because prisons generally do not have a comprehensive and robust intake and assessment process, according to Mr. Resendes.

He says that this process should include a hearing screening, which helps identify the degree of hearing loss and if hearing aids are needed, prisons must provide those, along with an ongoing supply of batteries.

Another issue reported is prisons rely on prison staff or other incarcerated people as interpreters rather than bringing in certified interpreters. To satisfy federal regulations, interpreters, “via a video remote interpreting (VRI) service or an on-site appearance, is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary,” according to the nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in state and local government services rule.

In the case of Jensen v. Shinn, a class action lawsuit filed against the ADC for years of neglect of the health needs of state prisoners and the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, a Jensen deaf class member, K.P., made a declaration that said,

I have never been provided an ASL interpreter for any of my healthcare encounters at ADC. During healthcare encounters at ADC, ADC has either attempted to use an unqualified fellow incarcerated person to interpret, used written English notes, or simply ignored that I could not hear and talked to me.”

The plaintiffs’ mental health care expert said that incarcerated DHH people had gone months, if not years, being unable to communicate meaningfully with healthcare staff.

“I don’t know if we can imagine what it is to spend years of your life in a system where your body may be breaking down, but you have no access to medical care to help you through all of that,” Mr. Resendes said.

Often, DHH inmates are put into solitary confinement for breaking rules they did not understand, for reasons of protective custody, or as a substitute for avoiding accommodations. By placing DHH inmates in solitary confinement, they experience the inability to communicate with staff, miss meals and medications, and inability to see fire alarms.

A policy idea for solitary confinement for DHH people is to ban it for disabled people except in rare and exceptional cases, such as if the incarcerated person poses a credible threat to the security of others or themselves.

Mr. Resendes included a list of suggestions that move beyond equality from Talila Lewis, an attorney who has advocated on behalf of those hard of hearing in incarcerated situations. Her suggestions include having conversations about solutions that center on disabled people who are at the highest risk for experiencing violence and recording all law enforcement interviews/interrogations and court proceedings involving signing people.

“Gaining access at the expense of freedom is not justice,” Ms. Lewis said.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Chapman is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

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