Uncovered: deaf prisoner’s treatment at the hands of the US justice system

“Imagine serving decades in prison for a crime your sibling framed you for. Now imagine doing it while profoundly deaf.”

An incredible article by investigative journalist James Ridgeway for America’s Mother Jones magazine uncovers the story of Felix Garcia, a profoundly deaf Cuban American who was imprisoned in 1983 for a crime his brother has since confessed to.

Garcia, from Florida, has so far spent nearly thirty years of his life behind bars. Ridgeway uncovers not only the vulnerability of a deaf prisoner (Garcia has been “ignored or taunted by guards, raped and brutalized by other prisoners” he writes) but also how little Garcia understood of the original court case which determined his fate.

Ridgeway writes that Garcia “was given a hearing aid, which he said didn’t work, and a loudspeaker, which amplified noise but didn’t help him understand what people were saying. He tried to read lips, but the prosecutor often faced away from him, and he had no clear view of the witness box. In other words, he was largely clueless as to what was going on.” Garcia told the paralegal called Pat Bliss who has supported his case since 1996 that the reason he answered “yes” to so many questions in court was because he didn’t want to look “stupid.”

It transpires that Garcia’s brother made a deal with the authorities in order to avoid the death penalty. Over twenty years later, he admitted in court that his brother had nothing to do with the original crime, but despite this, Garcia remains in prison.

Having been punished for a crime he did not commit, Garcia then faced what could be described as a double sentence (which is also, as it happens, the name of a play by Deafinitely Theatre about a deaf prisoner) of being a prisoner in a system that made no provision for deafness.

Ridgeway uncovers how US prisons have no records of how many deaf prisoners there are, and how legislation for people with disabilities is routinely ignored, which leaves deaf prisoners completely powerless and excluded – without access to training that could help them prepare for a life outside, general information (simple things such as calling out mealtimes) or entertainment (televisions without captions, for example). That’s without mentioning the brutal treatment they can face.

Much of what Ridgeway outlines in the article is also true here in the UK.

In 2007, I worked on a BBC2 special for the deaf programme See Hear about deaf prisoners. We worked with The Deaf Prison Project to research our programme, and were surprised to find (like in the US) that that there were no statistics on the number of deaf prisoners in the UK.

The main focus of the programme became a deaf prisoner who had spent many years in prison and had been freed only a few years earlier. He was interviewed anonymously. Like Garcia, he told us he was unable to understand his trial – and upon being found guilty, the length of his sentence.

He reported being treated brutally by the guards in the prison. The biggest problem with being deaf, he said, was not hearing the guards speaking to him. If he asked them what they had said, it was seen as answering back, while if he didn’t hear them at all, they would presume he had ignored them. Either way, he would receive physical abuse in response.

The former prisoner had (as with Garcia) spent time in solitary confinement, in this case because he was diagnosed as being mentally ill after reporting hearing sounds in his head. He suffered immensely for this, but the sounds he had heard were, incredibly, later found to result from his tinnitus.

What became clear is that any problems a deaf person could be faced with in the outside world were magnified in a captive environment. Access did not seem to be anywhere on the list of priorities, and the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Disability and the Equality Act) didn’t seem to exist.

Our contributor seemed scarred by the experience, and only took part in hope that speaking about what had happened to him would help reduce the chances of it happening to anyone else.

Let’s hope that James Ridgeway’s article helps make more people aware of the problems deaf prisoners face, and above all, that Felix Garcia, who seems to be the victim of an extraordinary deception, finally finds justice.

Deaf people are proven body language experts. So what jobs could this skill lead to?

A study has shown what signing deaf people have long suspected – that we pick up faster on body language. And it gets better – researchers at the University of California say that because we’re so canny at picking up on “subtle visual traits in the actions of others,” deaf folk could be suited to certain jobs, “such as airport screening.”

But before jumping into a career where we spend our days differentiating the grimaces of smugglers carrying a bellyful of cocaine-filled condoms from those of passengers who’ve had one too many vodkas to calm their pre-flight nerves, let’s not limit ourselves. There’s a whole range of jobs we can target our newly updated CVs at, and here are just a few of them…

Poker player. Since deafies have a natural ability to spot ‘tells,’ its time for us to stop playing one another in deaf-only tournaments (cancelling out our natural advantage) and start hustling hearing tournaments instead. Look out, Victoria Coren.

Bodyguard. Looking for someone who can block out all extraneous noise and spot that shifty assassin with gun in hand, only a trigger pull away from inspiring another Oliver Stone biopic? Deaf bodyguard is your man. If you book him an interpreter, he’ll even make like Kevin Costner and sweet-talk Whitney Houston after. Though whether he’d take a bullet for a hearing guy is a whole other question.

Pre-marriage counsellor. Who needs long sessions with a priest, or a pre-nup for that matter, when your deaf body language expert can tell you – after just a few moments in your company – whether your prospective spouse is in it for love or money? Special rates for former members of the Beatles.

Interpreter. For hearing people. For years, deaf people have employed hearing interpreters to translate verbal communication into sign, so it seems only fair that we give something back*. Whether you’re a confused hearing arts critic at a mime fest, or a hearing boss working out from non-verbal cues which candidate to give a job to – deaf ‘terps’ are ready to step in and make sense of the visual world for you. (*Subject to a £100 an hour charge and a minimum 3 hour booking time, with breaks every twenty minutes and no refund at all for cancellations.)

How deaf viewers were let down by decision to use live subtitles on the Young Apprentice final

Last night, my wife and I sat down ready to watch the final of BBC1′s Young Apprentice.  Admittedly, the show’s a bit of a guilty pleasure for us, but after eight episodes and ten firings, we found ourselves rooting for our own candidates – I wanted James to win, she wanted Zara.

With kids in bed and hot cuppas in hand, we sat down at 9pm to watch the show, only to find, as the show began, that we wanted to deliver the “You’re fired” line to Lord Sugar and the BBC, instead.

All because the programme was transmitted with live subtitles. What this meant was that the lines of text we rely on to understand what’s being said in the show (since we’re both partially deaf) appeared on screen a good 5-10 seconds behind the dialogue.

Like the adult version of the show, Young Apprentice is quickly edited, full of one-liners and people speaking over one another, all in the name of producing pacy, dramatic telly.

So what deaf and hard of hearing people were watching throughout the final was, more often than not, subtitles appearing from the scene before the one we were watching. Here’s a video we made shortly after the start of the programme to show what it’s like:

What we should have been watching is pre-recorded subtitles, which are, (as the name suggests) prepared in advance, appearing on screen exactly in time with speech. Live subtitles meanwhile, are (also as the name suggests) usually used on live programmes, such as the news, sporting events, or live shows like the X-Factor.

They’re made as it happens, often through speech recognition, which is why they appear with a few seconds delay (and occasionally carry unfortunate willy-related mistakes).

They’re far from ideal, but (while they could be improved) on live shows there’s no alternative. What stings is when a show is clearly pre-recorded, as the Young Apprentice Final was, yet a decision is made for it to carry live subtitles.

On Twitter there were dozens of complaints. Ian Noon said “What about fair access to deaf young people?” Tyron Woolfe said ” Deaf People sick of this, live subtitling does not work, we are getting everything 20 seconds later…. its PATHETIC,”  while Martine Monksfield said: “disappointing re. live subtitles on #youngapprentice which means deafies 10seconds behind = lost. Turned over!”

Pre-recorded subtitles need to be delivered to a subtitler in advance of the show being transmitted. So what’s the BBC’s excuse? Were last minute editing changes made to the show that stopped this happening? Or were they worried that by passing on a tape of the final to a subtitling company, the name of the winner might leak out?

The bigger question is whether, at any point in the process, anybody stopped to consider the effect further down the line on deaf members of the audience, which add up to one in six of the show’s potential viewers?

I’m so annoyed that I still don’t know who won. Did James come through? Or Zara? I’m sure I’ll find out eventually, but not in the way I was supposed to. The only bright spot was when I found out (thanks to Sally Reynolds) that the subtitles displayed ‘Lord Chugger’ at one point. Small consolation, but it brought a smile to my face.

Subtitle FAIL ruins tonight’s Young Apprentice final for deaf and hard of hearing viewers. Gutted.

My wife and I watched the whole series of Young Apprentice up to tonight’s final. Being deaf we rely on the subtitles, so we were more than a bit gutted when tonight’s subtitles were live, instead of pre recorded, and ran with a massive delay… ruining the programme. Here’s my video showing what live subtitles are like.