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Hearing on the Deaf Penalty: The Intersection of Deafness and Criminal Justice

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Published onApr 01, 2019
Hearing on the Deaf Penalty: The Intersection of Deafness and Criminal Justice


The Deaf population in America’s criminal justice system is far under-acknowledged, researched, and accommodated. Each year, gross negligence toward Deaf individuals results in exponentially costly lawsuits regarding violations of their constitutional and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rights. The purpose of this study is to empirically identify the current deficits experienced by the Deaf within the criminal justice system through 18 qualitative interviews with two sub-populations: Deaf individuals who have directly interacted with the criminal justice system and professionals who witness the interaction of the Deaf within the criminal justice system. Results from the qualitative investigation revealed that the top three problems in the system were: 1) the lack of qualified, reliable interpreters; 2) the lack of communication accommodations available in prisons and jails; and 3) the lack of accommodative resources. The results suggest a disconnect between the professionals who serve the Deaf in the system and the Deaf themselves, which limits the potential benefit of those professionals to aid the population. The research implications of this investigation are presented.


The criminal justice system was created to provide protection and justice to the citizens of America. Yet, this is not the case for many in U.S. society—particularly those with disabilities. While much research has been put forth on the intellectual disabilities of offenders (see Davis, 2009; Petersilia, 2000), less is known about offenders with physical disabilities such as deafness. For instance, Felix, a Deaf man, was convicted in 1981, at a mere age 19, to a life sentence for first-degree murder and armed robbery (Ridgeway, 2012). Born hearing, Felix lost his ability to hear as a child, and at trial in 1983, a doctor diagnosed Felix with severe hearing loss. In 2010, at age 48, he was raped in prison (Ridgeway, 2012). Unable to communicate with the guards, he felt he had no personal safety. He spent every night for weeks crouched in the back of his cell with his face plastered against the concrete, helplessly hoping that he would feel a vibration should someone be on their way to once again victimize him. To this day, he claims his innocence and even reports that he had a solid alibi for the time of the crime (Ridgeway, 2012). In the courtroom, he was provided a loudspeaker, a moot point to accommodate his deafness. Due to a lack of understanding of the judicial system, his plea for a habeas petition was twelve years too late. The isolation of prison proved to be a traumatizing experience for Felix, and similar trauma still manifests for d/Deaf individuals housed in correctional facilities today (Green, 2014). Despite the expectation that d/Deaf people are afforded rights in the criminal justice system, d/Deaf individuals with all levels of hearing loss continue to face the rejection of basic rights, such as due process, education, and personal safety, due to their disability (Gardner, 1985; Grossman, 2015; Miller, 2001; Smith, 1994; Tucker, 2008; Vernon 2009; Vernon 2010).

The injustice is misunderstood as many do not realize that disability prevalence is substantially higher among America's incarcerated population versus the non-institutionalized adult population (Reingle et al., 2016). Inmates with disabilities face enhanced risks of illness and injury while incarcerated and increased risk of recidivism (Griefinger, 2006). For example, in a 2016 study, out of over 18,000 inmates, 41% of inmates self-reported disabilities. Among those inmates, 31% endorsed specific learning disabilities, 25% reported vision deficits, and 17% reported hearing difficulties (Reingle et al., 2016).

While 17% was the estimate indicated above, the number of d/Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing inmates in the United States is difficult to appraise. This is due, in part, to the fact that deafness is not reliably reported during institutional intake processes (Duvall, 2004; Grossman, 2015; Miller et al., 2005). It is estimated that approximately 30% of America’s offenders fall under the spectrums of d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing (Miller, 2002). “Deafness” can range from the profound inability to hear any sound levels to different levels of Hard-of-Hearing. Typically, deafness is measured by the level of sound pressure, or decibels (dB). A hearing loss of more than 81 dB is considered a profound hearing loss/deaf, and a hearing loss of more than 40 dB is considered a hearing impairment (PubMed Health, 2017). An important distinction within deafness and the Deaf community is cultural identity. An individual who suffers from hearing loss but identifies with hearing culture is considered linguistically deaf and is grammatically identified as “deaf” with a lower-case “d.” However, individuals who are immersed in the culture and community of American Sign Language identify as culturally Deaf and are grammatically identified with an upper-case “D.”1 Even with nearly one-third of the inmate population requiring accommodations for their hearing loss, their needs go unmet, and they face the denial of basic human rights (Duvall, 2004). This specific population within America’s justice system is under-researched and, as a result, faces undue discrimination through interactions with police, courts, and corrections (Miller et al., 2005). Without adequate cultural awareness, the conditions of the Deaf people in the system will remain unchanged (Vernon & Miller, 2005).

The research on the experiences of the d/Deaf in the criminal justice system is extremely scant and limited (see Kelly 2017; 2018). This purpose of this study is to begin to fill the void in literature regarding the contemporary deficits the d/Deaf community experiences within the criminal justice system. In addition, the purpose of this study is to provide empirically-supported implications for the future research needs of this population. Through interviews of d/Deaf individuals and professionals that work with Deaf individuals in the criminal justice system, this study will provide both an exploration and an examination of the problems that individuals who are linguistically and culturally d/Deaf face during their interactions within the justice system. The results and implications of this study are relevant to both those who are linguistically and culturally d/Deaf. For clarity purposes, the population will be referred to henceforth as "Deaf" out of respect for the community, however, it should be understood to encompass both “deaf” and “Deaf” individuals. Further, the study aims to illuminate the most critical deficits the Deaf community is currently experiencing and direct future research implications to the gravest needs of the community—a step that previous researchers have not taken.

Literature review

The review of the literature encompasses the necessary elements to understand the emergence of the problems Deaf individuals face in the justice system today, including explanations of Deafness and Deaf Culture. Beyond, it also reviews the implications of the protective legislature for Deaf individuals within the criminal justice system.

Definition and prevalence of deafness

There are approximately one million Deaf and eight million Hard-of-Hearing individuals in the United States (Mitchell, 2006). This includes a population of individuals who self-identify as Deaf by utilizing American Sign Language as their primary language and view themselves as a minority population with a unique set of values, traditions, and culture (Padden & Humphries, 2005). The capitalization of the “D” in Deaf signifies an alliance within the Deaf community, which has emerged with the use of signed languages throughout America’s history (Lewis, 2015). The word “deaf” with no capitalization signifies the biological inability to hear and the inability to rely on hearing to process information (Lewis, 2015). Also along the hearing loss spectrum is “Hard-of-Hearing,” which refers to the segment of the population with moderate hearing loss and who typically grow up oral (Lewis, 2015). Thus, the spectrum of being deaf varies from profound hearing loss, Hard-of-Hearing, or acute hearing loss. The politically correct way refer to an individual within this population is either “Deaf” or “Hard-of-Hearing,” as “hearing impaired” is no longer culturally accepted and often viewed as offensive.

The Deaf community differs from the hearing population; their mannerisms; their slang; their close connection with the members of the Deaf community; and their strong sense of pride for their culture are vastly different (Miller, 2002). In the United States, the most common form of communication for the Deaf is American Sign Language, a non-universal language completely separate from the linguistics of spoken English (Duvall, 2004). Signed languages were not recognized as official languages until 1960 when William Stokoe utilized the empirical tools of descriptive linguistics to determine signed communication had the scientific capacity to be its own legitimate language (Stokoe, 1960). The emergence of the American Deaf Community occurred in the early-to-mid nineteenth century along with the establishment of Deaf residential schools (Burch, 2000). Due to the historical oppression of sign language, the culture of Deaf individuals arose into a tight-knit community where members allied to preserve the language, socialize in their natural language, and, in turn, promote cultural identity (Burch, 2000). Today, there is a united Deaf community within America who use American Sign Language as their primary language (Humphries & Padden, 2005). American Sign Language (ASL) is recognized as its own distinct language (Burch, 2000). American Sign Language is not universal and differs from other regional sign languages, such as Kenyon Sign Language (KSL) or British Sign Language (BSL).

Legislation/ADA/Rehabilitation Act

Legislation passed in American history to secure rights for individuals with disabilities, including the Deaf community. To combat the challenges individuals with Disabilities experienced in the United States, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed (Goldberg, 1980). This Act is referred to as the “Bill of Rights” for citizens with disabilities (Goldberg, 1980). The Rehabilitation Act (1973) is broken down into four key sections, 501 – 504. The first section requires affirmative action to hire, train, and promote their disabled employees. Section 502 requires all federally funded buildings to provide accessibility to all facilities for disabled individuals. The third section extends affirmative action past the federal government to any entity in which the government provides $2,500 or more through federal contracts. The fourth and most comprehensive section prohibits any discrimination of disabled persons by entities that receive federal funding. These include hospitals, educational establishments, social service agencies, jails, prisons, probation/parole offices, and courthouses. In terms of the criminal justice system, this would extend the mandated non-discrimination to federally funded entities including jails, prisons, intermediate sanctions, and courthouses (1973).

To fill the voids left by the broad Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established in 1990. The ADA prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. Furthermore, the ADA extended anti-discrimination in titles concerning employment, public services, public accommodation, privately operated services, and telecommunication relay services. An example of the ADA’s extension on the Rehabilitation Act is the revision of section 504. Whereas before institutions were only obligated to provide accommodations if they were federally funded, the ADA extended the act to encompass all institutions regardless of funding. Though the ADA provides landmark representation for those with disabilities, there is often a crux utilized by agencies who are in non-compliance; agencies are not required to provide services if it changes the nature of the service or constitutes an undue financial burden (Glick, 1998).

ADA and the deaf community

Without question, the ADA impacted the lives of those with disabilities, including the lives of those who are Deaf. It is important to note that even while the members of the culturally Deaf community do not identify as disabled, they are still granted rights and protections within the ADA. Each of the titles under the ADA impacts the Deaf community: Title I requires equal opportunity employment from both private and public employers. This title impacts the Deaf community by requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to the employees ranging from auxiliary aids to interpreters. Title II requires full accessibility to those with disability for any local government programs and services. For the Deaf community, this will be represented through items of accessibility that encourage participation. Furthermore, Title II of the ADA defines “qualified interpreter” to mean “an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially both expressively and receptively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary” (28 C.F.R.ֆ 35.104). Next, under Title III, the ADA mandates that all public accommodations benefit the disabled community equally to the non-disabled. For the Deaf, public accommodations might include places of recreation, places of lodging, and post-secondary educational settings. Lastly, title IV of the ADA requires the twenty-four-hour availability of relay services from all telephone companies. This greatly impacted the Deaf community by ensuring 24/7 manner of communication to hearing and Deaf contacts alike (Tucker, 1997). Moreover, a poignant right included in the ADA for the Deaf community is the mandatory provision of accessibility tools. There are many accommodative resources available for the Deaf, and the individual circumstances of Deaf citizens must be evaluated to determine which tool is the best fit.

One form of accommodations that must be provided is adequate alarm systems synced with building alarm systems to alert Deaf individuals to emergencies (Glick, 1998). These systems come in the form of blinking light alarms as well as vibratory systems. There is also a system called WAVE that transmits both sound and visual messages on LED (light-emitting diode) panels that can be seen across far distances. The images displayed by WAVE communication can emit sign language images if required (Glick, 1998). A third technological resource for the Deaf is real-time captioning devices. It is a text display using the tools of a court-reporter, stenographer, and a computer. It translates the recorded speaker’s words into written text in real-time. For those individuals who fall into the Hard-of-Hearing category, there are assistive listening devices that may provide adequate accommodation. Specifically, assistive listening systems allow the Hard-of-Hearing individual to hear and comprehend speech by eliminating the interference of room noise and distance (Glick, 1998). This occurs by a sound system set up by a technician that allows the speaker to talk into a microphone and the Hard-of-Hearing individual to wear a receiver and headset that then enhances the sound of the speaker’s voice.

As far as telephone communication, the dated version is known as a teletypewriter (TTY). This device is a telephone with a keyboard on it that allows the Deaf individual to send writing back and forth to another TTY. If the desired party to contact does not have a TTY, they will be routed through a relay service where a third person is mediating the conversation between the parties (Glick, 1998; Mozzer-Mather, 2002). The modern version of the TTY is known as the videophone (VP). These devices allow Deaf individuals to contact one another through face-to-face video calls in which they can utilize sign language. It works through connection with high-speed internet. Similar to the TTY, if the desired party to contact does not own a VP, the call will be routed through a video relay service interpreter.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published via their website a guide to their Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) signed in October 2010 by President Obama. The CVAA ensures that the dated legislation established in the 1980s-1990s is updated to require new technologies. This would include text messaging, email, and video communications (Federal Communications Commission, 2010). Though there are many technological options, the preferred accommodation for the Deaf population is certified interpreters. Technology is seen as providing two-dimensional help, while the interpreter in the room can provide a three-dimensional understanding of the situation. There are traditional interpreters who can be qualified in different capacities. For example, there is a national certification, local state training programs, and the specialized certification: legal (SC:L) (NAJIT, 2015). As of 2009, there were a total of 229 registered interpreters with their legal certification (Washington Courts, 2009). Alternately, there are also certified Deaf interpreters (CDI), Deaf people who undergo formal training in ASL, interpreting, and legal proceedings in order to act as a liaison between the Deaf client and the hearing interpreter, primarily in a legal setting.

ADA and the deaf community within the criminal justice system

Members of the Deaf community who come into contact with the Criminal Justice system particularly benefit from the protections granted within the ADA (Miller, 2002). The ADA and its accommodations extend to each facet of the criminal justice system, including police, courts, and corrections. To begin, the U.S. Department of Justice regulations require specific law enforcement training regarding Deafness; there are inter-agency training opportunities to spread officer awareness to individuals with disabilities, including those who are Deaf. In the 1998 Supreme Court case Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskley, it was decided that Title II also extends to local and state law enforcement agencies to mandate non-discrimination from any public entity.

To ensure non-discrimination, law enforcement is supposed to provide qualified interpreters as long as doing so does not infringe upon the immediate safety needs of the situation (McEntee, 1995). It is up to the agency to determine and provide the best mode of communication for the person’s individual needs, whether it be a form of sign-language or hearing amplification device. If the Deaf person is arrested, the Miranda warning should be printed in a manner approved by the agency and presented to the individual (McEntee, 1995). Most importantly, that same form should also advise the arrestee that the agency has an obligation by the federal government to provide an interpreter, and interrogation will cease until one arrives (U.S. Department of Justice, 1980).

While the printed legislation of the Miranda warning is an attempt to ensure due process, it has been recognized by several states that Deaf criminal suspects require an interpreter to comprehend the contents (Wood, 1984). In fact, providing a written Miranda Warning is not the ideal manner of communication and does not ensure comprehension. Having an interpreter present provides an increased likelihood for full and effective understanding of rights, the nature of the accusations, and the opportunity to provide their own statements for police records (Wood, 1984). And finally, accommodation occurs within the act of handcuffing a suspect depending on the officer’s discretion. Because the Deaf population uses their hands to communicate, barring that capability for the Deaf suspects, while the hearing suspects have communication capabilities, seems unjust.

Within policing, a common violation of rights stems from the lack of knowledge of both protocol and available resources. For instance, there was a case in 2014 in Washington State in which a Deaf woman was wrongfully detained and tased because the police assumed she was the attacker in the domestic dispute (Knicely, 2014). In 2012, Minnesota paid a $229,500 lawsuit due to a Deaf man who was not provided means of effective communication with a police officer during a routine traffic stop. When the man attempted to use his hand to write and communicate, the officer pepper sprayed him in the face and took him into custody (Prison Legal News, 2012). In 2007, a Connecticut police department settled a $50,000 excessive use of force claim against a Deaf couple who were unjustly pepper sprayed (Prison Legal News, 2009).2

Secondly, the ADA impacts the court system. Title II, requiring the government entities to make their programs accessible to the Deaf population, is often represented in courtroom parties when a Deaf person has a courtroom role such as witness, defendant, or juror. In the past, the U.S. has faced challenges ensuring these accommodations in an expedited manner, and in turn, has battled providing due process rights for Deaf citizens (McAlister, 1994). In an attempt to combat this, the federal Bilingual, Hearing, and Speech Impaired Court Interpreter Act (1979) requires qualified interpreters in any civil or criminal proceeding initiated by the federal court in which a Deaf person must participate (McEntee, 1995). As a result, the courts are the responsible party concerning the provision of language access and interpreters (Miller & Vernon, 2001).

Even with the Act's passage in 1979, only four states provided sign language services for Deaf clients in the next several years that followed (Wood, 1984). A reason for the lack of accommodation could be the challenge of locating qualified interpreters. Out of the approximately 3,200 certified interpreters in the United States, only a minute fraction of these possess legal specialist certifications. In 2003, a Deaf defendant received a $175,000 settlement in New Jersey as the court failed to provide an interpreter (Prison Legal News, 2005). Moreover, one of the largest inadequacies in due process rights of Deaf defendants is the right to a speedy trial (Miller & Vernon, 2001). This delay can be explained by the lack of interpreter availability, but also by the inability of the courts to understand the linguistic diversity that encompasses sign language, and in some instances, can delay trials years at a time (Miller & Vernon, 2001).

Beyond the court system, correctional institutions often face costly lawsuits from Deaf offenders (Lewis, 2015). The definition of the word “Deaf” within the correctional setting encompasses individuals who have severe-to-profound hearing loss, are unable to understand speech, and the comprehension of speech is not altered upon engagement of amplification devices. It is estimated that 30% of offenders can be classified as “Deaf” or “Hard-of-Hearing” (Miller, 2002). To compensate for this significant portion of the population, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (1994) ordered that any new or altered correctional facilities must have a minimum of 3% of all cells accessible to Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing inmates (ADA Accessibility Guidelines, 1994).

The non-profit organization, Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), is the only entity that records the number of Deaf individuals within correctional settings.3 They estimate that there are tens-of-thousands, possibly hundreds-of-thousands, of inmates with hearing loss nationwide (Lewis, 2014). The vast disparity in numbers is due to the variability in reporting, and because only six states actively log their Deaf inmates (Grossman, 2015). Because of the drastic under-reporting, it is difficult to obtain data on the accommodations provided to the incarcerated Deaf across the nation. However, Miller (2002) published a study including information on accommodations available in correctional settings. For instance, Miller (2002) explained the usage of vibrating alarms, TTY equipment, amplification devices, and television captioning for this population. More specifically, the researcher noted the “buddy system,” or the grouping offenders with similar needs. This is controversial because hearing status does not ensure personality compatibility.

It is important to note that, even though there are accommodations available to the Deaf population, they are not uniformly provided. Kelly (2017) completed 27 semi-structured interviews with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing inmates as well as correctional staff in England spanning across seven male prisons from 2014-2015 and observed resource denial when a Deaf inmate “was not allowed” over the ear headphones despite his inability to wear earbuds due to being born without ears. In a separate interview, another Deaf inmate was not granted a vibrating alarm clock due to it being an “unauthorized item” (Kelly, 2017, p. 8). Lastly, identification tools, such as location monitoring devices and identification tags, have also been noted. Even so, the goal is to increase professional and officer awareness of the Deaf inmates which is not currently present in the correctional system.

If the professionals working within the system are not aware of the culture, Deaf individuals can, as put by a federal judge, be sentenced to “a prison inside a prison” (Grossman, 2015, p. 16). The Kelly (2018) study revealed that the experiences of Deaf inmates vary depending on their cultural identity while in prison. Regardless, both culturally identified and linguistically d/Deaf individuals experience the pains of imprisonment more severely than their hearing counterparts (Kelly, 2018).

Further, Deaf individuals arrive with a different cultural background, and an inability to communicate in spoken English, which gives rise to unique circumstances within correctional settings (Lewis, 2015). For instance, within this subpopulation, it is estimated that the average Deaf inmate reads at a third-grade level. This would qualify as functional illiteracy, which would ameliorate the benefit of written forms of communication and the written presentations of Miranda rights. Within the correctional setting, inmates are often presented forms, such as permission for a polygraph or DNA tests. These forms require the reading comprehension of at least sixth-grade, and some instances twelfth-grade, levels (Vernon & Miller, 2005). Also to be considered, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing inmates originate from a different cultural identity, therefore they may not integrate with the social norms of a prison society. One example provided is the Deaf community’s propensity to have very open communication amongst themselves, which in prison may earn the label “snitch” (Miller, 2002). The Deaf inmate population also runs the risk of being labeled a “rat” due to their need to require special attention from staff to provide accommodations to their activities (Schneider & Sales, 2004). Also extending from the community of origin, it is estimated that the number of Deaf inmates who are mentally ill surpass their hearing counterparts (Andrews, Leigh, & Weiner, 2004). The explanation for this, though under-researched in this specific sub-population, is that the causes of Deafness are often associated with causes of mental illness, such as scarlet fever and head injuries (Andrews, Leigh, & Weiner, 2004).

Aside from the cultural differences for Deaf inmates, the communication barrier is another unique struggle within the prison that gives rise to many other concerns. Schneider and Sales (2004) investigated the potential for Deaf offender abuse and pinpointed two major areas of concern due to communication barriers: the inability to participate in prison programs and the potential for emotional and physical abuse. The lack of communication capabilities results in denial of work opportunities and a significant unlikelihood of achieving social contact (2004). Because of this, the Deaf are often at risk of emotional harm because they are now isolated from their cultural identity and community (Schneider & Sales, 2004). Suicide and other mental illnesses are catalyzed through this isolation (Lewis, 2015). In an attempt to thwart social isolation, prisons offer programs to rehabilitate offenders. Though protected under the ADA, the participation in rehabilitative programs, such as substance abuse counseling and religious services, may be restricted for use by the Deaf due to the inability to communicate via English and lack of an interpreter (Schneider & Sales, 2004). Furthermore, Deaf offenders are also at risk of a higher likelihood of physical abuse due to their inability to rely on all five senses for protection (Schneider & Sales, 2004). Also, they may experience more physical confrontations due to the added difficulty in perceiving intentions of other inmates as well as diffusing aggressive situations, both of which are attributed to the communication barrier (Clarkson v. Coughlin, 1992). Communication to the outside world is also problematic as a phone call to loved ones using a relay service is four times as expensive as a normal phone call (Lewis, 2014). Lewis (2014) noted that Deaf incarcerated offenders should have access to videophones, captioned telephones, or TTYs.

The concept of Deafness and criminal justice is largely under-investigated. Currently, there are dismal empirical data composed of first-hand narratives of the Deaf community’s experiences in today’s system. This research aims to begin to bridge the interagency gaps and highlight the areas in direst need of research. Specifically, this study aims to answer the following two questions: (1) What are the greatest deficits the Deaf are facing in today’s criminal justice system? (2) What do professionals working with Deaf feel are the most imminent needs to combat said deficits?


This research investigation adds to the scant existing literature by exploring the current challenges the Deaf community faces when interacting with the criminal justice system. Additionally, it extends prior research by illuminating possible solutions to those problems presented by professionals working with the Deaf community. Adhering to the eight “big-tent” criteria (e.g., worthy topic, sincerity, rich rigor, credibility, ethical, significant contribution) as noted by Tracy (2010) for quality qualitative research, this research investigation utilized semi-structured interviews with Deaf community members and professionals working with Deaf community members to address the gaps in the literature.


Prior to the conduction of interviews, Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was first sought from Seattle University. There were several ethical considerations to address regarding the research population. First, as the Deaf community is innately small, and the Deaf who have criminal histories results in an even more limited population, confidentiality of the participants was a poignant ethical issue. To ensure participant confidentiality, names were coded as pseudonyms, and no characteristics that could be utilized to deduce the identity of the participants are reported. In addition, the topic of prior experiences in the correctional system could be emotionally triggering; thus the primary researcher contacted several Deaf advocates who agreed to direct the participants to resources in their respective areas.

In addition, an element of professional rapport was established to promote participant comfort in discussing the potential triggering information. Rapport was obtained in two ways. First, rapport was present between the researcher and select participants due to the manner of sampling in this study. As the participants were referred to the researcher through a mutual party, the researcher was able to use this as a tool to build rapport. Secondly, rapport was secured due to the fact that the primary researcher could communicate in American Sign Language and is involved in the Deaf community. Thus, this common link between the researcher and the participants also assisted in the cultivation of professional rapport, as the Deaf community is innately tight-knit and participants respected the researcher’s goals to aid the community with the results of this study.

Finally, the ethical consideration of informed consent arose as linguistic capabilities of the Deaf population are diverse and, thus, written informed consent may not have been sufficient. To combat this, the researcher presented a signed informed consent at the beginning of each interview with a Deaf individual to ensure the participants fully understood their role in the research investigation as well as the risks and benefits of their participation. Once approved by the IRB, the investigator began sample recruitment. There are two subpopulations within this study, one composed of Deaf individuals who have directly interacted with the justice system, and the second composed of professionals within the field who have first-hand witnessed the Deaf community interact with the system.

To recruit the Deaf who have experienced interactions within the justice system, social media was used. The investigator created a new Facebook page devoted to the study, and within it, created a page called The Deaf Penalty 2016. Utilizing that page, the investigator then uploaded a video of her signing, (in American Sign Language), a recruitment request. Following such, the investigator implemented Facebook’s advertising advancement option, paying $15.00 to advertise on Facebook4 soliciting participants between the ages of 18-99. The keywords “Deaf,” “Deaf community,” “American Sign Language,” “Deaf rights,” “ASL interpreter,” and “Deaf education” were chosen to assist Facebook in the targeted placement of the ad. The video was then uploaded onto the web page, and the participants would private message the account to set up an interview. Altogether, the video was watched 11,429 times and was “acted” upon, such as shared, commented, or liked 5,289 times.


It is important to acknowledge that one-in-twenty people in America are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing, meaning the sample size of this study is automatically restricted (Mitchell, 2006). Members of the Deaf community who have personal experience within the criminal justice system narrow the possible sample even further. That being said, to collect enough data to achieve saturation for both of the subgroups, the sample had to consist of individuals located in multiple states in order to recruit a sufficient number of participants (Fusch & Ness, 2015). The sample consists of individuals who were located within seven different states: Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, California, Florida, and Indiana. Oral informed consents were presented before each interview with a hearing participant and signed informed consents were presented for the Deaf participants. The sample population of individuals consisted of 18 individuals, nine Deaf individuals with direct interactions within the criminal justice system and nine professionals in the field of criminal justice who have first-hand experience with the sub-population in the context of the criminal justice system.

Subgroup A

The subgroup composed of Deaf individuals who had direct interaction with the system consisted of six males and three females. The ages of the participants ranged from 26-63 with an average age of 33 years old. All members of this group identified as culturally and linguistically Deaf. Members of the Deaf subgroup had interacted with the justice system in multiple facets including jail (1); prison (3); house arrest (1); court (9); arrest (3); juvenile detention (1); and parole (2). For those individuals who have experienced incarceration or arrest, their alleged offenses were assault and battery (1), rape (2), molestation of a child (2), driving under the influence (1), and kidnapping (1).  One individual did not know the name of his offense but stated: "you can find my name under Megan's Law." In regard to communication, only a single participant had parents who could communicate via American Sign Language. Six of the participants grew up with ASL as their primary mode of communication, and three grew up in an oral or English program.

Subgroup B

The recruitment of the professional sample occurred primarily through snowball-sampling.5 Through professional networking in the primary researcher’s Deaf community, she was directed towards the first three individuals to interview. These individuals then provided the name of other professionals they would recommend as providing an expert opinion on the experience of the Deaf within the criminal justice system. Furthermore, in the second subgroup, the researchers aimed to have professionals in all facets of the criminal justice system represented. For the professionals, there were a total of four males and five females all working for agencies within the Pacific Northwest.6 Due to confidentiality, the titles and ages of those will possesses a certain degree of ambiguity. The ages of these nine individuals were as follows: one person in their thirties, four people in their forties, three people in their fifties, and one person in their sixties. The sample was composed of four professionals who held titles representative of expertise in either state or local ADA compliance within the criminal justice system, one Deaf attorney, one Deaf advocate representative, one representative from law enforcement, one certified American Sign Language interpreter, and one certified Deaf interpreter (CDI). Additionally, for the professional subgroup, the locations where the individuals witnessed the interaction of the Deaf within the criminal justice system were acknowledged as: court (5), police interrogation (1), probationary meetings (1), arrest (2), Deaf client/attorney interactions (2), jail (6), and prison (4).

Subgroup B was included in this study to fill the void in the extant literature on professional perspectives and opinions regarding the experiences of the Deaf in the criminal justice system as well as gauge their knowledge and needs of the population. To the researchers’ knowledge, this design supplementing the narratives of the Deaf with first-hand professional experiences is the first study of its kind.

Interview schedule for Subgroup A

The conduction of the interviews for subgroup A occurred via two modes: Video-Phone (VP) interviews and Video Relay Services (VRS), and were not recorded. The VP interviews were conducted within a private office at an academic institution between the primary investigator and the participant via American Sign Language (ASL), and the VRS interviews were conducted from the primary investigator’s home via telephone in a designated room with no other individuals present in order to preserve confidentiality.

The semi-structured interviews for the Deaf who experienced the criminal justice system was composed of two segments: (1) demographic information about themselves and (2) their personal experiences within the system. The first segment inquired their relationship with the Deaf community, their primary language of communication, their family genealogy of Deafness, if their family can communicate with them via sign language, and their educational background.

For the "experiences" segment, questions were geared toward recounting their experiences within the system and then based on those experiences, opining on the treatment of the Deaf population within the criminal justice system. To reveal their relationship with the justice system, the following questions were asked: “In what capacities have you interacted within the criminal justice system?;” “If any, what were your convictions?;” “Please recount the day of the crime;” “Please recount your experience within the court system;” and “Please recount your experience within the correctional system, whether that be incarceration, intermediate sanctions, or treatment.” To examine awareness within the justice system, two questions were asked: “Please share any Deaf-friendly accommodations you have seen and/or are aware of;” and “If you felt yourself or another Deaf individual were inadequately treated, how would you report such?”

Further, to illuminate the treatment of the Deaf within the justice system, and gage where future avenues of research need to take place, several questions were asked as follows: “What are the top three problems you have seen the Deaf community face within the criminal justice system?;” “Why do you think the number one answer is such a pertinent issue?;” “What solution would you recommend?;” “As a whole, do you view the collective treatment of the Deaf in the criminal justice system as improving? Why or why not?;” and “Is there any specific question or concern that you would like to see investigated in the future?”.

Interview schedule for Subgroup B

Interviews for this subgroup were conducted via a telephone call, VRS, or in-person and were not recorded. All in-person interviews were conducted one-on-one in a closed office to ensure confidentiality. All telephone interviews were conducted in private settings at the researcher’s home. The interviews followed a distinct semi-structured interview schedule and were also asked demographic and experience-related questions. Their demographic questions illuminated their relationship within the Deaf community and their educational background. Their experience questions were also divided into two themes, their recount of the experiences they witness regarding of the Deaf within the system and, being catalyzed by those experiences, their assessment of the experiences of the Deaf within the system. Their experiences were expressed when answering using three questions: “What locations have you witnessed the interaction of the Deaf in the criminal justice system?,” "What have your experiences been in regards to the adequacy of their treatment? (1-10, ten being perfectly accommodated),” and “Please share any Deaf-friendly accommodations you have seen or are aware of.”

Finally, to determine their professional opinion regarding the treatment of the Deaf within the justice system, and gage where future avenues of research need to take place, a theme of three questions were asked: “What are the top three problems you have seen the Deaf community face within the criminal justice system? Why do you think the number one answer is such a pertinent issue? What solution would you recommend?;” “As a whole, do you view the collective treatment of the Deaf in the criminal justice system as improving? Why or why not?;” and “Is there any specific question or concern that you would like to see investigated in the future?”.


The 18 interviews provided the data for this qualitative investigation. Each interview was at least one hour in length, utilizing a semi-structured form that inquired about personal history, experiences with the justice system, adequacy regarding the treatment of the Deaf, and the most significant deficits the population are experiencing today. The answers to the questions for each interview were recorded by hand by the primary researcher onto a semi-structured interview form and content was coded using qualitative data analyses best practices techniques (see Saldaña, 2009). Each interview was then reviewed line by line and codes were assigned to content also by hand. The primary investigator went through each interview twice to make sure all content was coded correctly and to ensure no data were missed. To aid in this process, the investigator highlighted content and affixed post-it-notes on pages organizing the codes into a readable and summarized format. As the sample size for this study is relatively small, the investigator was able to recognize the themes and trends within the interviews based on the generalized coding without the need of advanced qualitative analytic software. Experiences and deficits were coded as they appeared within the interviews, for example, "lack of interpreter present," "arrest," "court hearing with interpreter," "court hearing without interpreter," "incarcerated," "accommodations provided," and "accommodations not provided." After the re-reviewing the content, the investigator tabulated the frequency of the codes as they emerged in the data to distinguish the top three issues as experienced by the Deaf presented within the interviews. Additionally, the qualitative data was reviewed again to highlight direct quotations that were particularly illuminating of the identified themes that represented individuals’ experience while interacting with the criminal justice system.


To begin, both subgroups were asked the question “if someone was not adequately treated within the justice system, where would you report such?,” though none of the answers provided by subgroup B were referenced by subgroup A during their interviews. The professional witness subgroup declared the place to report would be: utilizing the grievance process for the particular facility (3), file with the department of justice disability rights section (2), a formal complaint to the immediate supervisor of the law enforcement officer (1), Hearing Speech and Deafness Center (HSDC) (1), file an ADA complaint (1), and the local bar association (1). The Deaf subgroup stated that they would reach out to: a Deaf access coordinator (1), lawyer (2), the warden (1), “the system” (1), another Deaf individual (1), a policy panel (1), the news (1), and one participant “did not know.”

All participants were also asked whether they perceive the criminal justice system as improving toward the Deaf. Each of the participants from the subgroup A said “no,” while two individuals from subgroup B said “yes.” Interestingly, one participant from subgroup A stated “no, it is not improving…but I heard on the east coast, it might be better over there.”

Based on that answer, each individual was asked what they perceive the top three problems to be within the criminal justice system and were given an opportunity to present a solution to the top problem. The top three problems, in order of severity, were noted to be interpreters, accommodations in incarcerated settings, and access to language. The need for interpreters was endorsed by 40% of the respondents, while 16% of the respondents noted the top problems being accommodation in incarcerated settings and access to language. When given an opportunity to propose a solution to the problem, seven participants offered a response. Of the responses, 57% claimed the solution is to implement public awareness training. The other solutions posed were to hire an inter-agency representative who is Deaf aware, provide more advocacy funding, and to implement a system to enforce ADA compliance.

Each of the top problems was exhibited through the narrative experiences of nine Deaf individuals who had interacted within the system. The top problems as identified by both subgroup A and B are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Lack of qualified interpreters

There is a cry for interpreters in the incarcerated settings, as felt by all but one of the once incarcerated individuals in the sample. One common history for these ex-inmates is being forced to rely on non-sufficient interpreters, including family members or other inmates. In one interview, a former Deaf inmate stated, “At first time, I went to jail for 10 months because of violated parole rule. There will no interpreter, however, only for treatment. Indeed, there is a school but 100% no interpreter at all. Lucky I have a friend who know all sign language because of his parents are Deaf.” Similar to this Deaf individual’s experience using a non-certified interpreter for critical communications, a Deaf woman had a son who faced felony assault charges. During her interview, she explained that, due to lack of interpreters at her son’s legal proceedings, her seven-year-old daughter would miss school and stand in as her interpreter. She relayed the struggle of staring at her daughter, trying desperately to catch the court proceedings, while the child struggled to interpret the legal language. She tearfully explained “my son was sixteen when he was sentenced to twenty-five-to-life…he may get a chance at parole when he is 45…I will be so old then…at the trials, there were no interpreters provided for me. I found out his sentence when the hearing was over, and he signed to me ‘life'…Do I have the right to an interpreter?" One participant from the professional sample noted that it was not uncommon to have Deaf parolees attend their follow-up meetings and bring family members to interpret. Similarly, another participant noted that it was common to have Deaf individuals show up with family members to interpret probationary meetings or treatments.

During other grave incidences, Deaf individuals are forced to go without any means of interpretation. One of the ADA representatives in the professional sample indicated that it might be due to the facility staff believing "they can communicate fine" and do not require an interpreter. These same staff members are not aware of the nuances of Deaf culture that enable adequate communication.

In other instances, the absence of interpreters is attributed to deficits within the criminal justice system. Upon arrest, one Deaf woman was not provided an interpreter because the arresting officers did not believe she was Deaf due to her ability to vocalize spoken English. Later on, she was denied interpreters during her trial in which she was facing kidnapping charges. Another formerly incarcerated participant relayed “I was in a holding cell for days for a DUI waiting for an interpreter.” A Deaf father faced an eight-year custody battle for his child due to the unreliability of legal interpreters in his small town.

A male participant who interacted with the system multiple times indicated that he was not provided an interpreter for any of his three hearings. At the end of the interview when asked “is there anything else you would like to share?” he responded “I hope someone can help me with my case and work with the Department of Justice. I was wrongfully accused because I had no interpreter to defend myself." Another former inmate shared similar frustrations and relayed that "after being incarcerated for eight months, they finally provided an interpreter." When asked why he believes it took eight months, he responded: "I think they put me on the bottom of the pile because I am Deaf."

The largest deficit experienced is stated to revolve around the lack of qualified, certified, interpreters who are willing to interpret in the criminal justice setting. According to a professional subgroup participant, these deficits are worsened in rural7 cities that tend to be unaware of the process to vet the qualifications of interpreters. While there are rare training opportunities presented in urban cities, one professional witness stated that the certified interpreters are drawn to steadier, more reliable work such as VRS interpreting. As reported by a professional advocate in subgroup B, the Deaf individuals who are incarcerated at a facility with hired interpreters often still face the constraint of availability. It is common in this participant’s history to see Deaf inmates left with no interpreters on weekends, leaving them unable to communicate Saturdays and Sundays. In relation, interpreters were found to be the most important Deaf-friendly accommodation provided to individuals within the criminal justice system, 28% of the respondents’ vote.

Lack of accommodations

The second most significant problem as identified by this study is the lack of accommodations available to the Deaf people who interact with the criminal justice system. According to one participant, the accommodation deprivation started immediately upon his arrest. Not only was he not Mirandized, during the arrest proceeding he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back eliminating any method of communication. Per the ADA, law enforcement agencies are required to make reasonable modifications to procedures to ensure accessibility unless the modifications fundamentally alter the program or service involved. For Deaf individuals, the protocol modification is handcuffing Deaf suspects with their hands in front of their body to permit some form of communication (U.S. Department of Justice, 2006).

This study found that the largest accommodation deficits occur in incarcerated settings; One participant, a former police officer, noted that the Deaf experience “terrible oppression in prison until there is a lawsuit.” Members of the Deaf sample notated various accommodation during their former incarcerations. One stated that he was unable to enjoy television with the other inmates because the prison gang did not like the closed captions blocking screen content. Another former inmate relayed, “Oh, many times I [would get written up]. They didn’t give me any [accommodation devices]. I wouldn’t hear the alarm, I would sleep in, and they would [write me up].” This lack of accommodations parallels the lawsuits presented in recent history, indicating the lack of accommodative services while incarcerated, including closed captioning as well as visual alarm systems (Prison Legal News, 2011). Two former inmates in the sample noted inadequate accommodations to attend school while incarcerated, and one indicated the denial of accommodations needed to obtain prison employment.

The lack of accommodations is evident from arrest to release. One participant from the professional sample opined that the problem stems from "officers, both court and police, [not] knowing what accommodations are needed for their people in custody." A specific lack of accommodation was present as the third greatest deficit in the system: lack of access to communication.

Lack of access to communication and language

Navigating through the penal system is a painstaking and isolating process. For Deaf people, this barrier is enhanced due to the lack of access to communication. This study found that Deaf individuals who interact within the system are most subject to communication barriers if they are incarcerated.

While interpreters play a critical role in facilitating inmate communications, there are other modes that would permit Deaf individuals some semblance of communication without an interpreter present. The key tool is a Videophone, or VP, which allows inmates to make outgoing calls to hearing and deaf people alike. Four individuals within the Deaf subgroup notated that facilities did not have a Videophone and instead offered TTY. With TTY being obsolete, it is no longer a reliable method of communication. Even with VP access, the Deaf still face communication barriers in the system. One participant from subgroup A was using a VP to reach out to various legal resources and ask for advice and assistance. These agencies were not accustomed to receiving Video Relay phone calls and would hang up as if she was a spam caller. Another Deaf individual’s VP access put his physical safety in jeopardy. While he could use a VP, his time frame was significantly more limited for calling, and he was escorted out of his cell to the VP during "lock-in." This unique treatment led other inmates to believe he was a "snitch." With no way to relay his situation to the hearing inmates, he “had no choice but to watch [his] back.”

Further, access to communication is critical when communicating with their defense attorneys. Whether it be via remote video interpreting or via an in-person meeting with an interpreter present, these meetings are critical for the Deaf individual who is navigating the criminal justice system. One member of subgroup B noted a substantive lack of effective communication with attorneys which “definitely impacted Deaf individuals’ due process rights.” Within the Deaf sample, there was an individual who stated that he had “no direct communication with his attorney,” and during the interview, he could not inform me of his official charges. His face depicted frustration as he explained his inability to contact his attorney and aid in his own defense because “they were not letting me communicate clearly before decisions were made." Another inmate faced communication barriers during arrest. During that time, he had no way to communicate with his attorney, and he was not Mirandized.

Within the questions unique to the professional witness subgroup, they were asked the adequacy of treatment of the Deaf. Many of their faces foreshadowed a bleak answer, and one participant simply stated “being a Deaf individual in the penal system SUCKS! They are so isolated.” Out of the nine individuals in that subgroup, two elected that, due to their role in the justice system, they must diplomatically decline to answer. Three of the participants enunciated on the level of variance between the adequacies of treatment depending on the city, for instance, a progressive city such as Seattle as compared to cities with smaller populations, and three of the participants answered on a scale of one-to-ten. Ten being perfectly accommodated, the three participants who gave numerical notation provided the numbers six, six, and one.

In sum, the Deaf community is in dire need of interpreters as they are viewed as the most valuable accommodation. Beyond simply that, they are also in need of accessibility devices and access to language while incarcerated. With histories of negligence and denial of accommodations, these interviews proved Deaf individuals are being denied of their rights granted within the Americans with Disabilities Act in every facet of the criminal justice system.


The largest deficits presented by Deaf individuals and professionals were: 1) the lack of interpreters, 2) lack of accommodations in incarcerated settings; and 3) lack of access to communication. These findings are consistent with the previous literature which offers that Deaf individuals disproportionately suffer in prisons due to the lack of resources, awareness, and individuals who can communicate in sign language (Kelly, 2017; 2018). The most commonly suggested solution to the problem was awareness training to professionals within the system.

And, ultimately, there is evidence that Deaf individuals throughout the United States are not receiving their rights as promised within the ADA. The scant existing literature parallels these findings, noting the lack of resources accommodating this population and violation of civil rights (Greifinger, 2006; Grossman, 2015). This research adds to the scholarly literature by providing real-world and timely examples of the deficits the Deaf community experiences within the criminal justice system through narrative accounts of Deaf individuals and professionals. As there is a deficit of extant literature on this population, the findings of this study provide a much needed foundation for future research.

The problems of lack of interpreters and lack of access to language may seem similar. While their nature overlaps, the lack of interpreters refers to the availability and the quality of the interpreters provided. Access to language extends to other accommodations that facilitate communication, such as cultural competency, VPs, and TTYs. The issues revolving around the utilization of TTYs and VPs in the correctional setting in this study paralleled in Miller’s (2002) work emphasizing the danger of recognition as a “snitch” due to the inmate’s being escorted by guards at atypical hours to utilize the services. The implications behind the lack of adequate access to communication impacts each facet of the justice system. It is critical to remember that, without access to language, the Deaf individual loses any chance to communicate any maltreatment they may be experiencing, and this would create a vicious cycle of disability leading to abuse.

Also, the lack of qualified ASL interpreters in almost all U.S. jails and prisons leaves most inmates who are Deaf unaware of critical information needed for safety and survival in prison (Miller, 2001; Vernon, 2009). Without an interpreter, the Deaf individual loses their basic rights, such as meeting with their attorney to aid in their own defense, being aware of the court proceedings, understanding the Miranda warning, attending rehabilitative classes during incarceration, speaking with loved ones, and most importantly, understanding their convictions and appreciating the legal consequences. Like Felix’s case, multiple Deaf subjects in this research investigation were unaware of their charges (Ridgeway, 2012). The experiences of the inmates being ignorant to their crimes, and unable to express wrongful incarceration because of the lack of interpretation available, parallels Lewis’ (2015) article and her case example of Joseph Heard. The lack of access to interpreters was startlingly present throughout this study, from the man jailed for days waiting for an interpreter for a DUI, the mother who removed her seven-year-old child from school to stand in as her interpreter, or the man who did not have an interpreter present for any of his three hearings. Deaf individuals have the right to access anything the general population can access, including work opportunities, recreational activities, and making phone calls. However, subjects in this research investigation experienced the lack of opportunity to partake in each of those things, which violated their ADA rights. That is, they lacked access to education, employment, and recreational opportunities. Further, the lack of accommodations while in an incarcerated setting speaks to the violation of ADA rights and also the violation of personal safety (Miller, 2002).

The accommodations while incarcerated pose a significant problem to the Deaf in the system today and can be attributed to a lack of cultural understanding or limited resources (Grossman, 2015). It is up to the professionals within the system to rectify these deficits. However, there is evidence of a missing step in the communication between the professionals who witness the Deaf within the system, and the Deaf individuals themselves. This is evident when considering the answers to the question inquiring the location to report maltreatment. Each professional who worked within the system had an idea of the steps to report injustices of the system pertaining to their field of expertise. The Deaf subgroup, however, was not aware of the appropriate policies or procedures to report injustices or maltreatment. This finding suggests that the knowledge possessed by the professionals in the system is not adequately being transferred to the Deaf who are in desperate need of this information.

Available accommodations are often not provided due to a lack of systematic awareness of the Deaf community behind bars. The findings in this study are similar to the findings of research conducted by Kelly (2018), where Deaf inmates were not provided appropriate technological accommodations. There is no unified method in place to log hearing status of individuals who encounter the justice system, and because of such, there is no efficient way to track the accommodations actively being employed within the system at any given time (Miller et al., 2005). This contributes to the impression of inconsistent treatment of the Deaf that varies from city to city and coast to coast as expressed within the interviews.

An added layer of complexity arises when considering that interpreters themselves are not a guarantee to equal access for the Deaf (LaVigne et al., 2003; Olsen & Kermit, 2014). Interpreters act on a clear code of ethics. Their role is to interpret, not to clarify misunderstandings or contribute to solving miscommunications (Olsen & Kermit, 2014). The possible miscommunications are not catalyzed by a lack of comprehension of the signs produced, but from the inability to fully comprehend the implications and connotations of what is being relayed (Olsen & Kermit, 2014). The utilization of a certified Deaf interpreter (CDI) is one method the criminal justice system can use to aid adequate proceedings involving Deaf clients, as the CDI’s role is to clarify meaning and resolve misunderstandings.


While this is one of the first research studies to investigate the professional perspectives on the Deaf within the justice system, it is not without its limitations.  One limitation of this study was the small sample size. The 18 qualitative interviews cannot be reflective of the entire United States Deaf population who have encountered the system, nor can they speak about each existing problem. In addition, the demographics are diverse for the sample populations. Even with the limited sample size, maltreatments with the existing literature were paralleled. This implies that with a more substantive population, instances of negligence will continue to be exposed and reinforced. Furthermore, it is important to note that the interview data was collected via hand-written notes on a semi-structured interview schedule. The interviews were not recorded8 and transcribed, which could have enhanced the data collection process. In this study, the researcher opted to in-depth and detailed note-taking as opposed to recording and transcribing for two reasons: 1) the interviews in this study took place via multiple modalities, thus recording the conversations posed challenging and; 2) the recording of the signed conversation poses an increased risk for confidentiality breaches, as the recording shows the person’s identity. Additionally, some obstacles arose during the data collection process. When attempting to reach professional witnesses, many state employees would not be at liberty to speak with the researcher due to current lawsuits in their respective states. Moreover, individuals are hesitant to volunteer their information due to the innately close nature of the Deaf community; and individuals did not want to relay any information about themselves or their titles that may reveal their identity. Furthermore, locating the participants for subgroup A was a challenge. Oftentimes, participants would agree to be interviewed, begin the videophone session, and upon discovering that the investigator was unable to provide legal advice or how to “wipe their record,” they would hang up. Furthermore, within qualitative research, the limitation of self-reflexivity9 must also be considered (Tracy, 2010). While collecting data, the primary investigator remained cognizant of her place within the Deaf community and her motivations behind this research. With such a recognition, the researcher was able to acknowledge, and therefore limit, self-reflexivity from impacting the data by owning and compartmentalizing personal biases and motivations. In addition, the use of a second researcher who is not a member of the Deaf community also helped preclude self-reflexivity from impacting the research process by providing outside feedback and reliability throughout the investigation. While the study did pose challenges and limitations, it provides data to form educated research implications to progress the investigation of the intersection of Deafness and criminal justice.

Future research implications

Due to the limited amount of existing literature, future research is needed. There are deficits in research in each of the themes presented: 1) interpreters; 2) accommodations within incarcerated settings; and 3) access to language. For the interpreters, research must be conducted on the quality of interpreters provided, agencies used to contract out interpreters to the systems within the criminal justice settings, and the enforcement of the right to have an interpreter. Regarding accommodations provided in an incarcerated setting, a breadth of research is needed. There are no data measuring the provision of accommodations in incarcerated settings. Without knowing what accommodations are being provided, there is no way to track locations in which they are not. Thirdly, the language needs of Deaf offenders must be investigated. In the realm of Deafness, language access varies to such a wide extent that, without knowing what the population needs the most, there is no way to ensure provision.

The lack of existing research poses a need for even the most fundamental of studies. This would include compiling the number of Deaf individuals who are active in the justice system in venues such as courts, correctional settings, and intermediate sanctions; determining the amount the states pay annually to Deaf offenders due to lawsuits; whether the ADA complaints are being resolved by the organizations; demographic information about the Deaf offenders (education, family language status, primary language), belonging to a cultural minority and its impact on criminality; the point in which ADA violations in the courtroom constitute as a mistrial; and sentencing and recidivism trends for Deaf individuals versus the rest of the population.

Recommendations for improved practice

The findings of this study also provide a foundation for recommendations to improve the experiences of the Deaf within the criminal justice system. First, it is critical to develop a uniform recording system for Deaf inmates. Protocols can be added to existing medical intake procedures to make this population easily identifiable. Aside from identifying them as "Deaf," information regarding their preferred language and mode of communication should be obtained. Likewise, by use of a certified interpreter, they should be made aware of the accommodations they are entitled to from the facility. The next recommendation for improved practice is to have designated ADA representatives located on-site at correctional facilities who are culturally competent. This serves a three-fold purpose: 1) these representatives will be able to monitor the status of all disabled inmates; 2) they will be aware of available resources for these minority populations; and 3) they can provide cultural competency training to professionals within the criminal justice system. Most importantly, an on-site ADA representative would be able to ensure the d/Deaf inmates who are experiencing abuse have access to the communication resources necessary to report such abuse. Lastly, interpreters are a poignant resource for the members of the d/Deaf community. When the community intersects with the criminal justice system, interpreters become vital. Therefore, for improved practice, facilities must ensure there are uniform standards for qualifications of those who will be interpreting in legal settings. Interpreting an inmate's GED classes requires drastically different skills than interpreting a sentencing hearing. Thus, the diversity in skills must be addressed and standards of qualifications must be enforced.

The Deaf population within the criminal justice system is an under-served, under-researched, and often neglected population. The extant research on this population is scant, and studies that provide the lived experience of the Deaf while in the system are even more limited. By way of qualitative interviews with Deaf individuals who have interacted within the criminal justice system and professionals who observe the treatment of this population, extreme systemic deficits were discovered. The top three deficits experienced by the Deaf within the system include: the lack of qualified, reliable interpreters, lack of accommodations, and a lack of access to communication. The Deaf population is marginalized within the system; the community experiences an increased risk of isolation, abuse, neglect, and the denial of basic human rights. With improved awareness, training, and resources, the criminal justice system can begin to combat the inequity the Deaf face daily when navigating through the legal process. Inmates and individuals with disabilities in America are considered a protected population and granted specific rights. All inmates, including the Deaf, deserve to have a voice against systemic neglect behind bars.


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Kabrianna Tamura is a Master of Arts candidate in the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Seattle University with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice – Forensic Psychology in 2016. Upon completion of her Masters, Kabrianna aims to pursue a PhD in clinical neuropsychology. She is fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and her research interests involve the intersection of deafness, trauma, and criminal justice.

Elaine Gunnison is a Professor and the Graduate Director in the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University. She received her Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati in 2001. Her research interests include understanding female offending patterns, the applicability of criminological theory to females, and corrections—including offender reentry. She has published four books, Offender Reentry: Beyond Crime and Punishment (Lynne Rienner), Women, Crime, and Justice: Balancing the Scales (Wiley-Blackwell), Community Corrections (Carolina Academic Press), and Women Leading Justice: Experiences and Insights (Routledge). Her research has been published in various outlets including Crime and Delinquency, Criminal Justice Studies, Federal Probation, and Women and Criminal Justice.


The authors thank Courtney Erickson for her kind assistance in the early stages of this research design.

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