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In the Fight to Close Rikers, Don’t Forget Deaf and Disabled People

People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by the crushing weight of mass incarceration.

Part of the Series

On March 31, 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support of a plan to close Rikers Island Jail Complex within the next decade. “It will take many years, it will take many tough decisions along the way, but it will happen,” the mayor announced at a press conference at City Hall. Up until last week, Mayor de Blasio held fast to the idea that “reform,” not closure, was the solution to the systematically unjust policies and practices that feed the most vulnerable people from the most beset communities in New York into one of the most notoriously violent jails in the nation.

Notably, the mayor’s reversal comes after years of activism led by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as by their loved ones and advocates. The announcement also comes on the heels of the release of a gripping SpikeTV docuseries, TIME: The Kalief Browder Story, which has helped propel Rikers Island, solitary confinement and the enduring injustices of our nation’s criminal legal system to the forefront of consciousness of millions of people. Produced by Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and Harvey Weinstein, this six-part docuseries elevates the haunted voice of Kalief Browder whose unmitigated torture as a child on Rikers Island led to his tragic and untimely death by suicide. TIME reminds us that Kalief Browder is but a singular representative of countless people trapped at Rikers and in the labyrinth of deadly jails across this nation.

While many have finally conceded that the criminal legal system has devastating intergenerational effects on certain marginalized communities — communities of color, low-income and no-income communities, and LGBTQ communities, just to name a few — far too little attention is paid to the injustices visited upon disabled and deaf communities, or to the link between these marginalized communities and the disabled identity. With very few exceptions, the research and advocacy that does focus on disability in carceral settings focuses almost exclusively on mental health disparities. Consequently, other disabled people — including people with mental illness who have other disabilities — are being funneled into and tortured at Rikers Island and jails and prisons across the nation with practically no public awareness, scrutiny or outcry.

In 1995, a federal judge wrote that the New York Department of Corrections had sentenced its deaf inmates to a “prison within a prison,” since it failed to provide access to qualified sign language interpreters, programming, health and mental health care, telecommunication and other communication aids, and information access as required by long-standing federal disability rights laws and the Constitution. Today, more than two decades later, despite increased awareness about the plight of deaf individuals in New York and the wide availability of low- and no-cost resources that can easily eliminate these barriers, the very same inequities persist within Rikers and in prisons across the state.

Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that I cofounded and continue to direct, created the only national database of deaf incarcerated people. Over the past six years, HEARD has documented a steady increase in the number of deaf incarcerated people in New York. This presents growing and grave concerns about equal access to the courts and conditions of confinement in the state’s jails and prisons for this particularly vulnerable population.

The state of New York is home to the city with the largest deaf population per capita in the nation (Rochester), and boasts of more schools for deaf children than any other state. In fact, one of these schools is less than 15 minutes away from Rikers Island. Nevertheless, deaf individuals have been detained at Rikers for years and deprived of communication and information for the entire length of their confinement. Like many hearing individuals, deaf individuals have spent years at Rikers without trial. However, the length of time spent by deaf individuals at Rikers is often extended due to illegal disability-based discrimination on the part of attorneys, courts and jail staff. Anecdotes and raw numbers collected by HEARD indicate that deaf people are held at Rikers even longer than their hearing peers who are detained for the same or similar charges.

Deaf incarcerated individuals customarily experience horrific discrimination and abuse in our nation’s jails and prisons, and Rikers is no exception. Even now, deaf individuals at Rikers are being denied sign language interpreters and other crucial accommodations. This population has been punished for “failure to obey” oral commands that they cannot hear, for using sign language to communicate, for “failure to follow rules” that were never conveyed to them, for “missing counts” that they were never apprised of, and for filing grievances about these and other persistent injustices. Further, this vulnerable population is subjected to all manner of abuse, deprived of access to medical and mental health services, denied access to education, diversion and reentry programs, and cut off from access to even the most basic human interaction. What is more, across the nation, solitary confinement is used as a substitute for the provision of accommodations and protections for deaf incarcerated individuals. This practice leads to deaf people spending extended periods of time in solitary confinement, customarily after reporting incidents of physical and sexual abuse or threats thereof. Not surprisingly, the deleterious effects of solitary confinement tend to manifest even more quickly for people with sensory disabilities because they have fewer senses for the government to dispossess.

Deaf people at Rikers are not only denied meaningful communication with practically everyone on the island, they are denied meaningful access to their children, loved ones, attorneys and advocates because Rikers, like many other jails and all of New York state’s prisons, has refused to install videophones for over a decade. All of this transforms the violent ordeal of incarceration into a nightmare of extreme language deprivation, horrendous abuse and depressing solitude. As a result, the deaf individuals presently incarcerated at Rikers and those who preceded them have quite literally been punished for being deaf — and as recently as last month have been beaten by guards for reasons that remain unclear to them.

Add to all of this the New York Police Department’s track record of consistently failing to provide accommodations to deaf arrestees and the court system’s routine failure to satisfy even the most basic provisions of federal disability rights laws, and New York has created the perfect storm for wrongful arrest, conviction and death by detention and communication deprivation. After leaving Rikers, these traumatized individuals are either released with no mental health support or sent to upstate prisons where they experience years of the same treatment.

The moment a deaf person sets foot in our jails is the moment they begin to die.

A decade of advocacy with and for several hundred incarcerated deaf people, many of whom tragically have not psychologically or physically survived their incarceration, leaves but one conclusion: The moment a deaf person sets foot in our jails is the moment they begin to die, and rarely is anyone ever held accountable for their descent or death.

One hearing incarcerated person told me that he and others called deaf incarcerated people “the walking dead” because “they are easy targets and they walk around like zombies.” The behavior he describes is not uncommon in deaf incarcerated individuals, who, due to language deprivation in many instances, temporarily lose their ability to communicate. This behavior can be an indicator of trauma, as well as mental decompensation (mental deterioration, in this case due to atrophy) or mental illness. This behavior resembles behaviors exhibited by many who are placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, but has also been documented in deaf individuals who are held in the general population.

These unconstitutional conditions of confinement not only encourage and perpetuate all manner of abuse of deaf people at Rikers, but also contribute to deaf individuals being held for no reason, pleading guilty despite their actual innocence, and being wrongfully convicted due to lack of adequate access to legal counsel.

Longstanding federal disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, guarantee equal access to programs, services and activities for people with disabilities in legal and carceral settings. Years of advocacy on behalf of wrongfully convicted deaf individuals and incarcerated deaf, blind and disabled individuals makes clear that these laws carry little weight in the legal system where they ideally should carry the most weight. Similarly, the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires reasonable accommodations to protect deaf and disabled incarcerated people from sexual assault and rape in carceral institutions. This provision of the law is also not followed by the vast majority of jails and prisons across the nation. The 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limits the scope of lawsuits initiated by incarcerated people, makes it such that the overwhelming majority of these rights violations are never heard or adjudicated. Those cases that do by some good fortune make it to court rarely achieve meaningful systemic and long-term change.

Mayor de Blasio said that “the mass incarceration crisis did not begin in New York City, but it will end here.” He warned that closing Rikers will require at least a decade and “many tough decisions.” Perhaps between now and then we can commit to some easy decisions, like providing reasonable accommodations to those who are presently housed at Rikers, providing data on those held on the island disaggregated by specific disabilities, and decriminalizing disability such that people are not arrested or charged for merely existing. As we grapple with the crisis we have created and devise plans to exponentially reduce the harm inflicted upon thousands of incarcerated people and their loved ones, we must do so keeping in mind that our entire legal system is failing to provide equal access to people with all manner of disability; and that as a result, deaf and disabled people have been and are being wrongfully arrested and incarcerated, abused and killed in our names.

People with disabilities are among the most susceptible to unjust encounters within our legal system, representing more than half of the people killed by law enforcement annually.

Though rarely discussed, people with disabilities are among the most susceptible to unjust encounters within our legal system, representing more than half of the people killed by law enforcement annually and comprising the largest minority group within our jails and prisons, despite representing just 20 percent of the US population. Disabled people are also disproportionately represented in school suspensions and expulsions; the foster “care” system; and economically distressed communities. Therefore, they are among the hardest hit by the crushing weight of mass incarceration.

To end mass incarceration, we must first begin to be honest about the real and deadly consequences of racism, classism and ableism.

Closing Rikers is a step in the right direction, but in addition, the stories of deaf and disabled people must be amplified, and New York must take steps now to save them. As in the case of Kalief Browder, for far too many of them, “time” means death.