San Quentin State Prison will begin housing deaf prisoners, state officials report.
“They just want to be a part of the education and self-help pro- grams you enjoy here,” said Kelly Mitchell, assistant deputy director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
The transfers to San Quentin are the result of years of litigation between the deaf community and CDCR for their equal access to educational and self-help programs, said Prison Legal Office attorney Rita Lomio.
Mitchell announced the change at three August town hall meetings at San Quentin. She said 10- 15 deaf people would arrive at SQ in September.
She said there have been court rulings “but we’re here now and I believe this is going to be good.”
“Deaf people may serve longer prison terms than their hearing counterparts because they are not able to equally access educational and rehabilitative programing,” wrote attorneys at the Prison Law Office in recent statements attached to the long-running Armstrong v. Brown disability rights case.
There are currently 78 deaf inmates within CDCR, the Prison Law Office reported. Thirty-seven have been housed in Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison at Corcoran that, prisoner rights advocates say, makes it difficult to provide them needed interpretation services.
Moving them to San Quentin allows them to “have im- proved access to interpretation services, to more and varied programs, services and activities, and to community groups familiar with their needs,” said Don Specter, director of Prison Law Office.
“I told everyone we could do it here – it would be easy here because of the groups, education, and programing you have here,” said Mitch- ell. She described San Quentin as a place with an “open and accepting” environment.
Mitchell led a discussion, video clip viewings, and demonstrations about deaf culture and challenges and solutions related to their integration. Her implementation team included Lt. Tim Fleshman, Correctional Counselor II C. Levan, and Deanna Sardo, sign language interpreter.
Levan led questions and answers on myths such as all deaf people read lips, use sign language, and cannot talk. “All deaf people are not the same,” Levan said, “Effective communication depends on the individual.”
Levan demonstrated some best practices for communicating with deaf individuals with help from Sardo and San Quentin inmate Tommy Wickerd, a sign language practitioner. During the town hall meetings, Lt. Tim Fleshman showed video clips of non-incarcerated people from the deaf community signing and verbalizing messages about the deaf culture.
“Don’t act like you know what we are saying, when you don’t. We see you; we
can tell when you are clueless,” signed one unnamed women evoking chuckles throughout the room.
Mitchell said, “They don’t expect you to be perfect. They just want you to welcome them and accept them.”
She talked about her own experiences visiting with deaf prisoners. She shared how after getting over her own nervousness, and loosening up, she began to be able to communicate with the people.
“I wasn’t able to sign, but I began to understand through context. They appreciate the effort,” Mitchell said. “They just want you to welcome them and accept them. They just want to be part of the community.”
Mitchell informed the attendees that there will be a sign language interpreter available at all official and “due process” events involving a deaf person and classes and groups to which a deaf is assigned.
She reported San Quentin will hire three staff interpret- ers, establish relationships with contract interpreters to be used as needed, and use computer/video interpretation systems for when in-person interpretation is not needed or feasible. San Quentin will also install video remote phones for deaf in- mates to communicate with family and friends.
“There is a $1.5 million budget for this,” said Mitchell, “San Quentin will get the resources it needs.”
One issue mentioned was deaf individuals not hearing public address announcements. Various solutions were discussed including officers checking the Strategic Offender Management System (SOMS) to see if the person being called is deaf. Fellow inmates could help, she said. “You guys are going to know who they are. You’re going to help them like you already help each other.” Audience members agreed.
Inmate Kenjo Jackson said, “I think it’s wonderful. I love diversity. It solidifies real change taking place in prison. We experienced bad. Why not something and someone new?”
Kelly described the town hall meetings as a “kickoff” to talk about the change. She said there would be more training as the transfers get closer.