A new community of deaf people has finally arrived at San Quentin Prison.
After battles in the courts and multiple fights contesting the ability of the deaf to function on non-handicapped prison yards, officials have conceded that deaf people may attend the programs that they desire, said one ex-prison official.
“I love the environment and everybody spoke to me,” said new resident Dubose Scarborough through the translation of a San Quentin resident who is fluent in sign language. Scarborough is here from Corcoran State Prison with four years left in his prison term. He wants to do the vocational programs most of all.
During a tour of the facility, nine deaf people sat in the San Quentin News office in their green vests, looking at their surroundings and asking good questions. Although the incarcerated person who was giving the tour was a skilled veteran of sign language, it was a challenge for him to keep up with the barrage of questions and answers.
“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,” said translator Tommy Wickerd. “So doing this is a pleasure.”
American Sign Language (ASL) has been around for decades, but not in San Quentin’s level II facility.
At other prisons the deaf may be subjected to harsher treatment from other incarcerated people and/or prison staff.
“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 earlier interview.
There are almost 100 programs at San Quentin and they are available to everyone who wants to apply. However, being deaf can be a challenge when trying to get into some of them, even though the U.S. Department of Justice Analysis set regulations requiring all jails, correctional facilities and detention centers to provide services that meet the needs of deaf people so they may participate in programs in any place.
When the deaf population arrived, they wanted to know if there was a designated place for them to hang out on the yard. With the help of the officials they were given a specific place.
Other challenges deaf people may face are the numerous alarms that sound off during the day at San Quentin. When the men hear them, they must get down on the ground. Fortunately, the residents at San Quentin are being considerate of the needs of the deaf population.
Scarborough wanted to know about the newspaper and that led to a conversation about its history. New deaf resident Scott Roberson sat quietly and observed, only nodding and suggesting with gestures of his hands.
Deaf San Quentin resident Joshua Lovett is able to speak in a regular fashion and he translates for other deaf residents. He relayed a statement from the only trans female in the deaf group who prefers the pronoun she, Charles “Cristina” Toste. It is her first time in prison, but she feels welcomed in San Quentin as she is. She asked, in humorous fashion, “Are you guys enjoying watching us? And how do y’all accept trans people here?” Men on the news staff addressed the question: There are many trans individuals at the prison now and they have adapted to the community.
She then asked if it was a challenge for the non-disabled, if they found it hard to communicate with those who are deaf, and how the deaf are accommodated.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that the deaf be treated equally to those without disabilities. An example is phone calls: during the hours of phone use, TDD and telecommunication devices must be available to deaf persons.
It’s no surprise to see that these unique individuals are happy to be inside this new prison environment. The smiles were evident.
There are currently almost 100 deaf inmates within CDCR. A majority are currently housed in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF). According to prisoner rights advocates, housing these inmates at SATF makes it difficult to provide them with needed interpretation services.
Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office, wrote to Ralph M. Diaz, Secretary of CDCR, noting 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.”
After translating for the crew, Wickerd felt exhausted. However, he was excited and looked forward to going back to his cell and communicating with his new, deaf celly. “The trippy part about having this particular deaf celly,” said Wickerd, “is that his name is Chris and he looks just like my brother, too.”