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How to Securely Meet the Communication Needs of Deaf Inmates
By Jack McWilson
Published: 08/14/2017

The special communication needs of deaf inmates frequently seems confusing and the available resources also are often unknown. As a result, deaf individuals serving prison terms are being denied access to the telephone network; however, deaf inmates have constitutional and statutory rights to equal access, even in correctional facilities.

When communication services are available to other prisoners and the prison fails to provide the accommodations necessary to make the same services available to deaf prisoners, the prison becomes liable for failing to provide equal access. In the wake of several lawsuits, this year many correctional institutions are re-evaluating the communication services that are available to their deaf inmates. Compliance requirements are now mandated by the ADA, NRA and PREA. Court settlement amounts against prisons and jails, which did not provide deaf inmates with access to make their legally entitled telephone calls, have been in the millions.

TTY, once considered the legally accepted standard, is now an out-of-date non-compliant technology that increases an institution’s legal risk. It has been replaced by a newer video-based technology called Video Relay Service or “VRS” that seamlessly relays a video call between a deaf individual and a hearing person via an interpreter. Implementing residential Video Relay Service in prisons for deaf inmates meets the ADA requirement; however, it also introduces a significant security threat akin to providing a video phone to all inmates.

Residential VRS is an FCC regulated service that provides people who are deaf or hard of hearing ("HoH") with equal access to the public telephone network. The service is available for free to any qualifying deaf or HoH person using American Sign Language. The service requires a video terminal, a broadband Internet connection, and an account with a residential VRS provider. The residential VRS system enables a deaf person to communicate with a hearing telephone user via an American Sign Language interpreter. The interpreter is positioned in the communication path between the deaf person and the hearing person. On one side, the interpreter communicates with the deaf person using a video terminal. On the other side, the interpreter communicates with the hearing person via a telephone. The VRS interpreter repeats exactly what was said by each party.

The introduction of residential VRS into a jail or prison, without a managed-access front end system, has the potential for unrestricted illegal activity. This includes but is not limited to: gang coordination, taunting of witnesses, delivering contraband to inmates, planning escapes, and arranging other serious crimes. Even the simplest of common security practices that are implemented by Inmate Communication Services (ICS) telephone vendors for hearing inmate telephone calls cannot be implemented by residential VRS providers, per FCC rules and regulations, and are further prohibited from 1) recording residential VRS/videophone calls, 2) terminating a call, and 3) reporting any criminal activity that may have been said by a deaf prisoner. VRS interpreters are, in effect, a confidential participant in all residential VRS calls, regardless of whether or not the interpreter recognized the conversation involved illegal actions.

Therefore, without a managed-access video relay front-end system, residential VRS calls from prisons and jails cannot be recorded, monitored, or blocked. Additionally, without a front-end system in place for prison and jail VRS calls, prisoners using residential VRS are able to easily make prison-to-prison calls without the knowledge of the prison administration. Without knowing these consequential security risks, prison administrators are rushing to install residential VRS solutions just to meet the court mandated requirements for their deaf inmates, but unfortunately, residential VRS introduces an unsecure communication portal into their prison that is fraught with security risks. It is imperative for the safety of prison staff and reduction of inmate-generated video relay criminal activity, that residential VRS is augmented with a secure, managed-access, front-end system.

The residential VRS system was developed to provide deaf individuals with unlimited, unrestricted and easy-to-use equal access to the telephone network. As such, it was architected without consideration for the specialized security concerns which are typically available in prison voice systems. The following list details the inherent security risks which are introduced into correctional facilities when residential VRS is introduced into a prison environment:
  • There is no inmate identifiable call history.
  • There is no method to restrict outbound telephone calls.
  • There is no method to restrict inbound telephone calls.
  • There is no method to restrict peer-to-peer video calls (e.g., prison-to-prison calls).
  • There is no method to block the prisoner from making an unlimited number of telephone calls.
  • VRS providers are not allowed to record calls.
  • There is no method to block the source of video messages.
  • There is no method to block the destination for video messages.
The correctional facility can eliminate these eight critical residential VRS security risks by taking the following actions to secure their video relay calls:
  1. Standardize on strategic VRS providers:
  • That are able to identify calls from prisoners.
  • Will enforce a one-call-per connection rule.
  • Only acquire VRS numbers from those strategic VRS providers.
  • Disable residential VRS video mail for deaf prisoners.
  1. Install a VRS video recorder that captures video and audio from both parties and allows for call monitoring. Remember, VRS providers cannot record calls.
  2. Install a secure front-end video relay system that:
  • Allows prison administrators to manage prisoner profiles.
  • Authorizes VRS calls per prisoner profile.
  • Blocks all incoming calls.
  • Selectively records calls based upon the prison administrators’ rules.
  1. Use a video client that:
  • Requires each deaf prisoner to sign in using a facility assigned profile instead of the profile provided by the residential VRS provider.
  • Authenticates prisoners at the secure front-end VRS ICS.
  • Limits deaf prisoners to one video call per sign in.
  • Supports maximum time limits per call.
  • Auto signs off on idle.
  • Notifies all parties that calls may be monitored and/or recorded.
Jack McWilson is Senior VP of Marketing for Tidal Wave Telecom, a provider of solutions which deliver Secured Video Relay for deaf inmates in city and county jails nationwide, Department of Corrections nationwide, and the United States Bureau of Prisons. He can be reached by email at j.mcw@tidalwavetelecom.com


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