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Communication Challenges inside Prisons with Deaf Offenders
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 04/29/2013

Deaf Correctional officers are ill prepared or trained to handle the blind, the deaf and the mentally ill offenders inside of prisons. An increasing number of prisoners are becoming members of these four select groups; the deaf, blind, physically handicapped or the mentally ill persons that need culturally sensitive supervision and treatment to avoid misunderstandings, inappropriate treatment and most of all avoid misdiagnosis for their illness and other diseases prevalent inside prisons. Although there are a few exceptions to this rule, many employees are not prepared to handle such prisoners and must be trained to accommodate their constitutional rights to be treated while incarcerated. Looking one step further, there are few clinicians trained as well to handle such an event that requires timely treatment and good diagnosis of illnesses.

These groups of people, a minority in our communities are rapidly becoming a larger part of our prison population and adjustments must be made to ensure appropriate treatment is provided reflecting these differences in disabilities and needs. Accommodations are more than just housing adjustments or special diets. They consist of having qualified staff available so these offenders can effectively communicate their medical and mental health needs. This includes hiring individuals that can interpret with deaf individuals by using the American Sign Language ASL that has its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

My first hand experience inside of prisons reflects a lack of resources available to treat these special needs offenders in a medical and psychiatric setting. The truth is that many facilities are ill equipped to handle the communication, the diagnosis and the treatment aspect of these disabled individuals. It not only requires special training but also specialized mental health training for these ASL interpreters inside prison. To the best of my knowledge, this is not happening as a routine matter and often ignored by organizational structure and not intentional.

The presence of a certified ASL interpreter is rare and finding a clinician skilled in fluent ASL is even rarer making treatment for the deaf mentally ill prisoner very difficult if not impossible. Witnessing first hand, it has become a daily practice to communicate by ad hoc gestures and mime to get through and be in touch leaving the process a deep deficit that needs to be addressed. Working with skilled medical and mental health providers over a span of twenty five years, I have witness well-intended messaging and gestures by those trying to help the disabled offender but in reality has in no way bridged the communication gap that is often left open thus resulting in untreated conditions through misunderstandings.

One has to only imagine how to communicate hallucinations both visual and audio (hearing voices) such as schizophrenia as in deaf prisoners this could be especially challenging and difficult. Since the language barrier is real, there are dire needs to be cautious in the manner of communicating since misunderstandings or misinterpreting can lead to a poor or wrong diagnosis and eliminating the symptoms of a real psychosis occurring while incarcerated. Since this mental illness population is showing a steady growth, it might be worth research to find out how deaf mentally ill and all the other disabled individuals can effectively communicate with clinicians or doctors while inside our prisons.

Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Car’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

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