Daniel J Vance

Last column, I introduced you to “Joshua,” a deaf man in his 40s currently serving a lengthy prison sentence, in part for trying to illegally buy marijuana.

His sister “Cindy,” who I interviewed, believed much of her brother’s legal problems in great measure have been due to his inability to understand and communicate well in English. In other words, he hasn’t been able to fully understand the law. Today, sitting in a prison cell, he now fully understands the specific laws he broke, but that understanding hasn’t helped him navigate prison life. There is still so much he doesn’t understand.

For starters, Cindy said this about Joshua’s initial intake at local jail: “Imagine you’ve been arrested and are going to jail. They’re taking off your clothes, cutting your hair, and giving you medical exams in which they touch and probe all the orifices. Now imagine having to do that with people who can’t talk your language. They didn’t have an interpreter there saying what they would be doing to him and why.”

Later, in state prison, Joshua’s fears increased. First, he couldn’t hear the prison rules explained and no video of the rules was played. When prisoners were outside, the guards rang a bell to prod the prisoners into lining up before herding them in. Being deaf, Joshua couldn’t hear the bell and was disciplined several times for not lining up. Also, the prison has only sound alarms to alert prisoners to fire. At home, he feared fire and had a visual alarm.

“And during one medical check-up,” added Cindy, “the doctor wanted to take blood and there was no (sign language) interpreter to explain why. (Joshua) didn’t know if the needle was clean and he wanted to see it come out of the package himself because he thought it could have AIDS. He couldn’t get the doctor to understand him. When refusing to have his blood drawn, he got disciplined again. Anyone should have the right to question those things.”

Cindy asked the warden for an interpreter, but to no avail. A few months ago, Joshua became so frustrated in being unable to understand prison life he got into a fistfight, which led to his sentence being extended. Cindy said prisoners speaking non-English languages (including sign language) should have interpreters available to help prisoners comply with rules and to make prisons a safer place.

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