By: Kristy McCarville, MGPS PREA Coordinator/Analyst (PREA)
In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a survey showing 6.5% of incarcerated adults and juveniles in the United States have a sensory disability (Bronson & Maruschak, 2015).  Incarcerated inmates with disabilities are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Deaf and hard of hearing inmates struggle to communicate effectively with non-American Sign Language certified correctional staff and have an altered ability to perceive immediate danger. Inmates that remove their hearing aids and cochlear implants during lights out or shower time are at an increased risk of victimization (Lewis, 2014). Correctional facilities currently do not disaggregate sexual assault data to reflect the victimization experienced by sensory disabled inmates; however, national estimates suggest persons with disabilities experience violent victimization at twice the rate for those without disabilities (Harrell & Statistician, 2008).
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was the first piece of federal legislation signed into law that requires agencies to provide information and services to all inmates regarding sexual violence. PREA standards state that agencies shall provide education in accessible formats to all inmates, including those who have limited English proficient, are deaf, are visually impaired, or otherwise disabled, as well as those who have limited reading skills.  Further, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that protects individuals with disabilities from the exclusion of participation or denial of benefits or services, programs, or activities of a public entity on the state and local governmental level (ADA).
Incarcerated survivors face barriers when reporting sexual violence. For example, survivors may worry staff will not investigate their report or that they may be retaliated against for reporting. Deaf and hard of hearing inmates can experience further barriers. These barriers include:
TTY (Text Telephone) and relay technology: is provided to inmates at a costly rate, is not compatible with new technology, inaccessible to inmates with limited English proficiency and a time consuming process between operators that can result in miscommunication. Inmates have reported TTY and relay telephones calls are blocked at some facilities because they are 1-800 numbers.
Scheduling phone calls: TTY phones are not available on every unit of a facility and therefore inmates have to schedule an appointment with a case manager who is not always available. In addition, deaf inmates express they are given less hours of opportunity to contact friends/family/crisis centers because of scheduling issues.
Video Visitations: have high costs and have weak internet connection resulting in being disconnected are unable to communicate.
ASL Language: ASL is often deaf persons first language; not English. ASL has its own grammar, syntax, facial expression and does not translate well into written English. Therefore, communication in difficult situations can be very difficult without qualified ASL interpreters.
The Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault is working with the Department of Juvenile Services, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and rape crisis and recovery centers across Maryland to create memorandums of understanding that will help promote inmate’s accessibility to report sexual assault while incarcerated in as confidential manner as possible including inmate that are Deaf or hard of hearing.
Bronson, J., & Maruschak, L. (2015). Disabilities among prisoners and jail inmates, 2011-12. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/dpji1112.pdf
Harrell, E., & Statistician, B. (2008). Crime against persons with disabilities persons with disabilities persons without disabilities. American Community Survey. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/capd0915st.pdf
Lafferty, M. (2019). Accessibility project update: Rights of disabled inmates | CREEC. Retrieved September 3, 2019, from https://creeclaw.org/accessibility-project-update-rights-of-disabled-inmates/
Lewis, T. (2014). #DeafinPrison campaign factsheet. Retrieved from https://behearddc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/DeafInPrison-Fact-Sheet-.pdf