What’s Happening Right Now?
The Department of Justice (USDOJ) sued the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDPSC) on behalf of a deaf imprisoned person for failing to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The LDPSC established a training program to train hearing imprisoned people to interpret for Deaf* people imprisoned in the state. The DOJ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) commended LDSPC for “initiating an innovative program that trained selected inmates to become nationally certified interpreters,” remarking the success of the program was due to partnership between the state of Louisiana, LDPSC, and the program administrator.
*The term “Deaf” will be used throughout this document as a term to collectively include Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and Hard of Hearing persons (DDBDDHH).
The crisis at hand…
The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) vision for successful operations is that offenders will be treated humanely, prisons will be safe, and imprisoned people will be well-prepared for a productive return to society.
RID takes the position that creating an inequitable balance of power between hearing imprisoned people and Deaf imprisoned people is inhumane and illegal. It is extremely dangerous for prisoners with disabilities to rely on other prisoners’ assistance for basic needs. We also clarify that hearing imprisoned people are neither able to achieve certification for ASL interpreting, nor able to gain the necessary education and experience to achieve language proficiency or familiarity with Deaf culture during their incarceration. These factors contribute to oppression and marginalization, create an exploitative environment, and impede the success of Deaf imprisoned peoples’ preparation for a return to society.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires an interpreter to be able to interpret accurately and impartially; this is impossible to achieve when utilizing hearing imprisoned people for interpreting work. Additionally, there are neither any avenues for certification within the prison system, nor checks to ensure that interpretations are accurate and impartial.
Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf Communities (HEARD) and the Louisiana Affiliate Chapter of RID (LRID) wrote to LDPSC Secretary James M. LeBlanc, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, and BOP Acting Director Hugh J. Hurwitz to condemn the practice of using hearing imprisoned people to interpret for Deaf imprisoned peoples, and demanded that the practice be immediately suspended.
RID wrote to Secretary LeBlanc, Governor Edwards, and AD Hurwitz to share RID’s Standard Practice Paper on Professional Sign Language Interpreters. We asked for qualified / certified interpreters for Deaf imprisoned people. We requested a response, a corrective plan of action, and a commitment to providing qualified/certified interpreters.
Secretary LeBlanc responded that the LDPSC had worked closely with the USDOJ Office of Civil Rights to ensure the training program was in compliance with the ADA, and had received approval from the USDOJ to use hearing imprisoned people for interpreting work.
RID’s Board of Directors reached out to sister organizations and other parties concerned with the program. Additionally, the Board established an Ad Hoc committee to address concerns around a certified interpreter who is administering the program.
At the October 19, 2019 RID Board meeting, we received reports from individuals having familiarity and experience with the training program, sharing that Deaf imprisoned people are pressured to use hearing imprisoned people to interpret in settings ranging from medical appointments to parole hearings. These practices are contributing to longer sentences for Deaf imprisoned people, and are financially lucrative for the administrator and providers of the LDPSC training program.
The Board determined that this invasive and dangerous practice contributes to the marginalization of Deaf imprisoned people. The practice of intimidating Deaf imprisoned people creates a clear financial benefit for the program administrator and interpreting service providers in the LDPSC, establishes an inequitable power imbalance between Deaf imprisoned people and the Department of Corrections, and is harmful to the Deaf community.
It is clear to the Board that further work is necessary to raise awareness and establish legal precedent against this ethically harmful practice. It is resolved that the RID will continue to work with HEARD and NAD to combat this practice.
RID continues to work with stakeholders locally in the state of Louisiana. We uphold collaborative dialogue to attract attention and scrutiny to the harmful practice of using hearing imprisoned persons to interpret for Deaf imprisoned persons.