How to Meet the Communication Needs of Deaf Inmates

By Jack McWilson

The special communication needs of deaf inmates are not always addressed, and the available resources are often unknown to facility owners. As a result, deaf individuals serving prison or jail terms are being denied access to the telephone network that they have constitutional and statutory rights to use, even in correctional facilities.

When communication services are available to other inmates and the correctional facility fails to provide the accommodations necessary to make the same services available to deaf inmates, that facility becomes liable for failing to provide equal access. In the wake of several lawsuits, many correctional institutions are re-evaluating the communication services that are available to their deaf inmates. Court settlement amounts against prisons and jails, which did not provide deaf inmates with access to make their legally entitled telephone calls, have been in the millions.

TTY, or teleprinter (a device for transmitting telegraph messages as they are keyed, and for printing messages received), once considered the legally accepted standard, is now an out-of-date, non-compliant technology that increases an institution’s legal risk. It has been replaced by a newer video-based technology called Video Relay Service (VRS) that seamlessly relays a video call between a deaf individual and a hearing person via an interpreter. Implementing residential VRS in prisons or jails for deaf inmates meets the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement; however, it also introduces a significant security threat akin to providing a videophone to all inmates.

Residential VRS is a service regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and provides people who are deaf or hard of hearing (HoH) with equal access to the public telephone network. The service is available for free to any qualifying deaf or HoH person using American Sign Language (ASL). The service requires a video terminal, a broadband Internet connection and an account with a residential VRS provider. The residential VRS system enables a deaf person to communicate with a hearing telephone user via an ASL interpreter. The interpreter is positioned in the communication path between the deaf person and the hearing person. On one side, the interpreter communicates with the deaf person using a video terminal. On the other side, the interpreter communicates with the hearing person via a telephone. The VRS interpreter then repeats exactly what each party said.

The introduction of residential VRS into a jail or prison, without a managed-access front-end system, has the potential for unrestricted illegal activity. This includes, but is not limited to, gang coordination, taunting of witnesses, delivering contraband to inmates, planning escapes and arranging other serious crimes. Even the simplest of common security practices that are implemented by Inmate Communication Services (ICS) telephone vendors for hearing inmate telephone calls cannot be implemented by residential VRS providers, per FCC rules and regulations, and are further prohibited from recording residential VRS/videophone calls, terminating a call and reporting any criminal activity that may have been said by a deaf inmate. VRS interpreters are, in effect, a confidential participant in all residential VRS calls, regardless of whether or not the interpreter recognized the conversation involved illegal actions.

Therefore, without a managed-access video relay front-end system, residential VRS calls from prisons and jails cannot be recorded, monitored or blocked. Additionally, without a front-end system in place for prison and jail VRS calls, inmates using residential VRS are able to easily make prison-to-prison calls without the knowledge of the prison administration. Without knowing these consequential security risks, prison administrators are rushing to install residential VRS solutions just to meet the court-mandated requirements for their deaf inmates, but unfortunately, residential VRS introduces an insecure communication portal into their prison that is fraught with security risks. It is imperative for the safety of staff and reduction of inmate-generated video relay criminal activity that residential VRS is augmented with a secure, managed-access, front-end system.

Check out the entire article in the September/October issue of Correctional News.

Jack McWilson is the senior vice president of marketing at Tidal Wave Telecom Inc., located in Moorpark, Calif.