How Technology Is Changing Deaf Inmates’ Ability to Connect With the Outside World

Imagine being cut off from the world, having no communication, even with your family, perhaps for years. You can’t talk to anyone, share a joke or inquire about loved ones. If you get sick, if you need help, there’s no way to let anyone know.

You’re isolated. But then one day, somebody hands you a lifeline. This is what’s happening for thousands of deaf inmates across the country.

They have been consigned to what’s sometimes called a prison within a prison by the lack of technology in most facilities. But now, spurred by new Federal Communications Commission regulations, following years of advocacy by the deaf community and a series of lawsuits on behalf of deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates, about a half-dozen states including Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, have installed videophones that allow deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates to communicate directly with families or allow interpreters so they can call hearing people.

Merle Baldridge said he could hardly express what it meant to him when a videophone that allowed him to use American Sign Language was installed in a prison run by the Oregon Department of Corrections in Portland.

“I was popping my head out of the roof of the prison looking for it,” Baldridge said when I asked what it felt like when he knew the phone was coming.

He had been unable to talk to his children or his family for more than a year, except for visits from his wife. Now that he is on parole, he also has a videophone and video relay service that he uses to reach out to his parole officers and others in the correctional ecosystem. (Video relay services provide interpreters to enable deaf and hard-of-hearing people to talk to people who don’t know ASL). He used a videophone to file for Social Security, for instance — without that income, he said, he might have resorted to theft again.

There’s progress being made, but more needs to be done.

“There are deaf prisoners who I believe are wrongly convicted and we can’t even investigate because the prisons don’t have video phones,” said Talila A. Lewis, a professor and founder of Washington-based Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf.

All deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans, aboutĀ 2.1 percent of the population, are entitled to videophones and a video relay service. We don’t know what percent of the prison and jail population of 2.3 million is deaf or hard of hearing, but we estimate it is higher than in the general population, which means, at a minimum, there are 50,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates, many isolated.

Most correctional facilities do not have the technology allowing deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates to communicate in ASL with the outside world.

“We see people laughing, talking and communicating, and we’re stuck, isolated from it,” said Baldridge, 44, who has been deaf from birth. A recovering addict, he was in and out of prison in Oregon for 10 years, from 2004 to 2014.

A few prisons, jails and court systems enable no communication at all and there are cases where inmates have been held for decades with little communication. Most correctional facilities provide teletypewriters, a 50-year-old technology, mostly unfamiliar to the deaf community outside prisons. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates with low literacy rates would have a difficult time using teletypewriters anyway.

Videophones are free for correctional facilities. Americans pay for them through a small charge on their phone bills that goes to the Telecommunications Relay Service Fund.

One of the main barriers to installing videophones in correctional facilities is the difficulty in bringing videophones up to the security standards required in prisons. Prison administrators have been understandably worried about these security and safety risks.

At Global Tel*Link (GTL), my company, we realize videophones in prisons need to address these security concerns with abilities to block incoming communication, prevent three-way communication, prevent inmates from seeing communication history, limit use to a single person and limit the length of communication.

We have worked with Purple Communications Inc., a Rocklin, Calif.-based company providing technology and services for the deaf to adapt videophones with prison-grade security features and provide the underlying video relay service. Purple has more than 850 qualified sign language interpreters in 19 call centers, working in English and Spanish. They are available to interpret around the clock, as required by the FCC and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In December, we installed the videophones at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Corcoran Prison. In support of our commitment to design support for those with disabilities into all of our products, we have added Google TalkBack, on our secure prison-grade tablet devices to make it easier for people who are visually impaired to communicate.

“For years, prison administrators were afraid of internet and video use in prison. It just happens deaf usage of sign language requires the use of video for communication,” said Paul Singleton, national accounts director at Purple. “But recent research shows usage of phones improves the chances of reintegration into society … they are encouraging video visitation as long as it’s a closed, locked, secured system with recording.”

In other words, videophones do not allow prisoners access to the internet.

The effects of isolation on inmates is well documented. In the case of deaf inmates, the isolation is de facto, not usually deliberate — but no less excruciating.

Videophones, with video relay service provided by Purple and similar companies, can reconnect deaf inmates to the world. Prison systems that haven’t yet adopted them should take action.

This is in everybody’s interests. People who keep in touch with their communities while they are in prison are less likely to commit more crimes.

While all inmates should serve out their sentence for the crimes they committed, deaf inmates should not additionally be consigned to isolation.


Mr. Bambocci serves as chief marketing officer and executive vice president at Global Tel*Link Corporation.

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