“So when we want to talk about mass incarceration, we can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about disability because once the psychiatric facilities were shut down in the 70s and 80s people started funneling people with disabilities into prisons instead.”
Merle Baldridge, 42, is fifth generation deaf.
“I’m deaf, my family’s deaf… We’ve been deaf for over a hundred years, you know, we’re proud and strong,” he told MintPress News from Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, Oregon, where he has been interned since 2011 on charges of first-degree sexual abuse of a minor.
In April 2012, Baldridge filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODC), claiming the state prison system discriminated against him because of his hearing impairment. He claimed that he had been denied desirable jobs because good communication skills were listed as requirements. Instead, he was forced to perform menial labor, like scrubbing toilets.
He further claimed that the ODC did not provide him and other deaf prisoners with qualified interpreters for medical exams and religious services, nor did it supply interpretive aides, such as closed captioning, for orientation services. Deaf prisoners were also excluded from educational classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, according to Dennis Steinman, Baldridge’s lawyer.
The state ruled in favor of Baldridge in February, awarding him $150,000 in damages, in a case that set an historic precedent for Oregon to provide all prisoners with disabilities access to qualified interpreters for medical tests, orientation, counseling, and other needs.
Yet despite the court’s recognition of discrimination occurring against prisoners with disabilities, other problems persist. As Baldridge tells MintPress, “all of the burden” is shifted to hearing inmates who can sign: “They can learn basic ABCs, and they can work as interpreters for deaf people.”
The problem with this situation is that these hearing inmates often don’t have a strong command of American Sign Language, and they are given too much access to the private lives of deaf prisoners. They also control the deaf prisoners’ information flow: If the inmate interpreter either does not know how to translate certain information to another prisoner who is hearing impaired or does not want to communicate certain information, there is no way for a deaf inmate to find out if information is being selectively disseminated.
“And people [interpreters] are selected at random!” exclaimed Talila Lewis, the executive director of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), while speaking to MintPress. (She was talking about inmate assistants for disabled prisoners in general throughout the U.S., not specifically Oregon.)
HEARD is a nonprofit that promotes equal access to the legal system for individuals who are deaf and for people with disabilities. The organization estimates that there are tens of thousands of deaf people being held in jails and prisons across the country.
“It’s not like they’re going through a vetting process where they say, ‘OK, let’s find our least vicious to match up with our blind prisoner,’” she said. “No. They go, like, ‘Ok, let’s have rapist X be this blind person’s impaired assistant.”
This policy creates many obstacles for disabled prisoners, Baldridge says, explaining: “The hearing people are trying to extort from the deaf people, with candy, or money, or food, and stuff like that.”
Further, the job of being an interpreter for the disabled, such as the deaf and blind, is a highly desired job among hearing prisoners, he says. He also says that these interpreters will steal from the disabled by trading their interpreting services for things they want, such as food. And not giving into these demands can come at a price, he says.
“You’ll get abused by them,” he said, explaining that this abuse is generally limited to the assistant withholding information the impaired inmate may need to know.
In her travels across the country to investigate and advocate on behalf of prisoners with disabilities, Lewis says she’s heard stories of extortion going much further.
“Of course, what that results in is a lot of trading of sexual favors for basic stuff like food,” she said. “‘You want me to guide you to the chow hall? You want to eat, and make sure you don’t get raped by 10 other guys on the way there? Okay, you’ve got to give me head,’” she added, impersonating an impaired inmate assistant.
“The criminalization of disability”
Baldridge says he is currently in prison because he relapsed into a drug habit that led to his conviction in a number of crimes, such as “theft, D.U.I., [and] possession.” He has been in and out of jail in Oregon, Washington, and California.
According to Lewis, however, many disabled prisoners currently interned across the U.S. are innocent. They are imprisoned, she says, because they are facing an institution that systematically discriminates against them based on their disability — similar to the way that blacks and other people of color are discriminated against by the law. For people with disabilities, this problem is further compounded if they’re also a person of color.
“Even when you’re talking about the adult prison population, people with disabilities actually outnumber the percentage of people that are black or the percentage of people that are brown,” Lewis said.
The National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities, estimates that as many as 50 percent of prisoners have a mental illness or other type of disability.
“So when we want to talk about mass incarceration, we can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about disability because once the psychiatric facilities were shut down in the 70s and 80s people started funneling people with disabilities into prisons instead,” Lewis continued.
“The largest psychiatric facilities in the nation are prisons,” she said, listing examples such as Rikers Island in New York and Cook County Jail in Chicago.
Lewis compared the challenges that people with disabilities face with other struggles for equal rights taking place today, such as the criminalization of black bodies and the criminalization of poverty. “The same is true for people with disabilities,” she said.
“People with epilepsy, with diabetes, who are deaf, who have other disabilities, have been mistaken as unruly [or] drunk,” she said.
She referred to this as the “criminalization of disability,” adding that this is “not being discussed by anyone other than grassroots activists.”
She also explained that deaf people are often not provided with a sign language interpreter when they are arrested. Instead, a police officer who knows how to fingerspell (using fingers to spell words in the air) may be called in to assist. The problem with this — other than that it is extremely awkward, even for somebody completely comfortable with English — is that deaf people who communicate through American Sign Language sometimes don’t know English, as sign language uses its own grammar and syntax. Thus, even if a deaf person from the U.S. knows English, it might be considered a second language to him — and one he is less fluent in.
She says that in her years of travels to meet with prisoners with disabilities, many have relayed stories of physical and sexual abuse and told her that they were being wrongfully charged and imprisoned.
HEARD currently maintains the only national database of deaf, blind, deaf and blind, and elderly prisoners.
“I have no words to express how abysmal and how terrible and terrifying it is [for them],” she said of the conditions for these prisoners across the nation.