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'A Prison within a Prison': Advocating for the Rights of Deaf Inmates


"We call it a prison within a prison."

That's how advocates describe the lives of incarcerated deaf and hard of hearing people. The vast majority of correctional facilities have no ASL interpreters, and it's not unusual for inmates who rely on hearing aids to be denied the devices—or denied batteries to make them work.

Talila Lewis, founder of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf, joins us this week on Strange Fruit to talk about the work the organization is doing to try to improve the lives and ensure the rights of incarcerated folks with disabilities.

Lewis says the ableism in mainstream society is magnified in the prison setting.

"If you don't respond to an auditory command, you get shot or beaten or put into solitary confinement," Lewis explains. "Everything around you is based on sound. So if you miss the bell at 4 a.m. to get up and go eat, you miss chow. That's it."

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Click here for a transcript of this week's show.

Being deaf or hard of hearing in prison essentially means being unable to communicate with anyone around you.

"It's almost like being in solitary confinement," Lewis says. They're also more susceptible to physical and sexual assault, often asked to trade sexual access to their bodies for vital information from hearing inmates.

Because there are no accommodations in place to allow these inmates to communicate, it's hard to find them, count them, and make sure they're okay.

HEARD created and maintains the only national deaf and deaf-blind prisoner database, but without cooperation from departments of correction, accurate numbers are hard to come by. They estimate that deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing prisoners in the U.S. number in the tens of thousands.

We talk with Lewis this week about what we can do, and our local, state, and federal government could do, to protect the rights of this vulnerable population.

In our Juicy Fruit segment, Ebola fears continue to surface—this week, right here in Louisville. A Catholic Elementary school asked a teacher to self-quarantine after her mission trip to Kenya. Please note that if you are reading this from anywhere in the United States, you are currently closer to the Ebola patients in Dallas than Kenya is to the outbreak in West Africa.

The Washington NFL team continues to be the worst, now suing Native American activists who fought to have the trademark canceled on their offensive team name.

And if a server told you a bottle of wine cost "thirty-seven fifty," would you assume $37.50, like a diner in Atlantic City did last week? The bottle was actually $3,750, giving the customer quite a sticker shock, and leading us to wonder just how many dishes we'd have to wash if a bill like that was ever placed in front of #TeamStrangeFruit.

[Transcription assistance by  Cameron Aubernon.]

Strange Fruit can now be heard on 89.3 WFPL in Louisville (and live streaming at  wfpl.org) on Saturday nights at 10 p.m.

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.

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