Calling home from prison is cumbersome and expensive. For deaf people behind bars, it’s even tougher, sometimes impossible.
The technology provided to deaf people in most US prisons is a teletypewriter, a machine developed in the 1960s that requires users to type their messages. The system is rife with problems. Most deaf households have switched to some kind of videophone, which allows users to speak in sign language. But prisons across the country still use the outmoded system, known as TTY or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), leaving many deaf inmates cut off from loved ones.
“Right now, most deaf detainees and prisoners have absolutely no telecommunications access,” said Talila Lewis, volunteer director of the nonprofit Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of Deaf communities (HEARD), which has been working to improve conditions for deaf people in prison since 2011. “This completely violates federal disability laws left and right, all day every day.”
TTY messages are sent through telephone lines and are either read by a relay operator who speaks them to a hearing individual over the phone, or appear on a small screen at the top of another TTY device. Users of TTYs say the process is incredibly slow; it requires the caller to be fluent in written English (instead of American Sign Language or other sign languages) and familiar with 50-year-old technology.