The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that, starting in January 2024, prison phone companies will be required to provide phone services with video, a major step forward for the incarcerated deaf community, Christie Thompson reported for the Marshall Project and Mother Jones. Consequently, deaf people in custody will have dramatically improved means for communicating with loved ones outside prison.
Prison is an institution where fundamental human rights are often treated as negotiable, rather than inalienable. These conditions are exacerbated for those living with a disability. Without video communication options, there are very limited options for those who are deaf and want to communicate with sign language. As the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, phone calls became essential for those in prison, which created a major disadvantage for deaf people who did not have access to the proper technology to make this possible. The importance of this accommodation is underscored by the fact that many convicts are incarcerated without anyone fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). With the new rule in place, the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in correctional facilities will have the opportunity to communicate using sign language.
Deaf inmates experience an even more isolated environment, which can be extremely frightening and traumatizing. According to the National Association of the Deaf, “Deaf and hard of hearing people serving prison terms are frequently denied basic due process rights and access to rehabilitation programs and prison services because prison administrators fail to understand their communication needs.” Many deaf inmates are much more likely to be dealing with other challenges, such as mental health issues and neglect, due to communication barriers, which sometimes deny them of basic due process rights.
In effect, starting January 2024, the FCC will require all prison phone companies to provide video communication services. However, disability rights groups are wary of the new policy’s cost. Currently, deaf inmates can make free calls outside of prison, but this new law allows phone service companies to charge for video phone calls between two signing people. According to Thompson’s article, many deaf prisoners are reporting they do not have access to ASL interpreters, especially at essential times, such as when receiving medical attention. Communication barriers put these inmates at a major disadvantage when it comes to accessing education and other programs within the correctional process that allow them to rejoin society successfully.
News coverage of deaf people in prison is almost non-existent. There has been no corporate coverage of this story. However, the beginning of FCC discussions about ways to support the deaf prison population was first covered by Madeline Hughes for The Well News in September 2022. Thompson’s article for the Marshall Project was co-published by Mother Jones. While organizations such as the FCC and the National Association of the Deaf have communicated this triumph, the story has yet to be picked up by establishment news outlets, especially in the detailed way Thompson treated it.
Christie Thompson, “‘Prison Within a Prison’: New Mandate Offers Lifeline for Deaf People in Custody,” The Marshall Project, March 21, 2023; and as “A New FCC Rule Will Guarantee Video Calls for Hearing Impaired Prisoners,” Mother Jones, March 21, 2023.
Madeline Hughes, “FCC Rule Change Poised to Help Deaf Inmates,” The Well News, September 28, 2022.
Student Researchers: Samantha Beaulieu, Brigid Murray, Bryce Souza, and Caroline Roscoe (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)