A new community of unique deaf people arrived at San Quentin and had to endure a prison programming change plus a devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
“My COVID experience was awful,” said Jaime Paredes, SQ incarcerated deaf resident. “We were housed in North Block, but were getting quarantined in Badger Unit. We (the deaf community) was on the same tier but we were spread out. Tommy (Wickerd) was our only incarcerated interpreter.
“We had to make a string line to connect to Tommy’s cell, so he could yell ‘Man Down’ if anyone needed emergency medical help,” he added.
After five days, Wickerd was able to inform Associate Warden Albirton about the challenges and the deaf residents were sent back to North Block, said Paredes.
“As for SQ programming today, I’m like wow! It’s like a little town here,” said Paredes. “I’m here to work on myself and become a productive member of society.”
It took multiple court battles before prison officials allowed deaf people to function on non-handicapped prison yards. San Quentin has a small American Sign Language (ASL) class led by Wickerd. The state provides outside interpreters for the deaf residents who attend school, vocation, and self-help groups.
“I am deaf and transgender, and during the COVID outbreak it was a pain to communicate without an interpreter,” said Cristina Toste. “Since the prison is opening back up, I love San Quentin. Everybody has been nice.
Toste said she enjoys her transition pre-release/reentry planning class and LGBTQ support group.
At other prisons, the deaf may be subjected to harsher treatment from other incarcerated people and/or prison staff, advocates say.
“Deaf people may serve longer prison terms than their hearing counterparts because they are not able to equally access educational and rehabilitative programming,” said Prison Legal Office attorney Rita Lomio in an interview.
There are almost 100 rehabilitative programs at San Quentin and any mainline man can apply. However, being deaf can make getting into some of them a challenge.
When the deaf population arrived, they wanted to know if there was a designated place for them to hang out in the exercise yard. With the help of officials, they were given a specific place.
The new deaf residents also encountered numerous alarms during the day at San Quentin — which require the men to get down on the ground. Fortunately, the other San Quentin residents helped alert the deaf residents.
Wickerd interprets and gives the deaf residents tours of the prison. He also has a new deaf celly.
“The trip part about having this particular deaf celly,” said Wickerd, “is that his name is Chris and he looks just like my brother, too.
“I taught sign at Lancaster prison, where I was able to relay messages of change from gang members and testimony from youngsters on peer pressure and choices,” Wickerd added. “So, doing this is a pleasure.”
Wickerd bought nine deaf residents, in their green vests, to the San Quentin News room to ask questions and look at the scenery.
There are currently almost 100 deaf inmates within CDCR. A majority are currently housed in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF). According to some prisoners’ rights advocates, housing these inmates at SATF makes it difficult to provide them with needed interpretation services.
Director Don Specter of the Prison Law Office wrote to Ralph M. Diaz, then secretary of CDCR, to explain the situation. He wrote that housing deaf people at San Quentin will allow them to “have improved access to interpretation services, to more and varied programs, services, and activities, to community groups familiar with their needs.”
“I love the environment and everybody spoke to me,” said Dubose Scarborough, via sign language through an interpreter. He came from Corcoran State Prison with four years left in his prison term. He looks forward to doing the vocational programs.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) provides protections for the deaf to receive equal treatment to those without a disability. Examples include phone calls, TDD telecommunication devices for deaf persons at the hours of phone use for the non-handicapped, and other services.
“I’m pleased with how the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is treated here,” said Richard Acosta. “It has definitely been a life-changing experience living with so many positive inmates around me. I look forward going forward with the ASL classes and joining the 1,000 Mile running club.”