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Being Deaf in prison is a double Sentence
Why does the plight of Deaf people in prison go unheard?

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This is a guest post by Inspector Kelly Reed of Thames Valley police who can be contacted on:

Deaf with a capital D


This blog post discusses cases involving Deaf prisoners from both the UK and USA. The terms used throughout this blog refer to different levels of hearing, noted as accepted terminology as ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’ refers to people with loss of hearing who use British Sign Language (BSL) as a preferred means of communicating and identify with having lived experience of being Deaf. The word ‘deaf’ with a lower-case d, is used as a neutral, medical term for individuals with hearing loss. 

Risks faced by Deaf Prisoners

There are four categories of harm experienced by Deaf Prisoners:

  1. physical,
  2. financial/economic,
  3. emotional and psychological, and
  4. cultural safety.

One common risk to deaf prisoners is that of physical and social isolation. UK prisons are required to comply with the current legislation covering reasonable adjustments for disabilities. This makes a compelling case to challenge those who have authority and power to effect changes within the UK prison systems.

Another important issue is when Deaf prisoners have additional needs beyond the ability to effectively communicate. This includes mental health conditions which add vulnerability that becomes further compounded if communication and feelings of safety are not resolved by those responsible for the care of the detainee.  Previous research has evidenced the difficulties experienced by deaf offenders with mental health issues and also highlights a higher rate of deaf and mentally unwell offenders detained within high security hospitals.

The British Deaf Association (BDA) is the most active group nationally within the UK for Deaf equality.  They provide two key elements here; the first is a research report that has gathered the views of Deaf prisoners and prison staff and sets out each of the main risks and issues and provides practical recommendations for each one. The second key element of information is regarding their campaigning for equality for the use of British Sign Language (BSL).

Felix Garcia (pictured below) is a Deaf prisoner within a United States prison.  In the film ‘Deaf in Prison Part 1’, Garcia describes the difficulties of being Deaf in prison Despite serving 31 years, Garcia told research interviewers his difficult experiences of what should be an ordinary daily prion routine, such as mealtimes and showering.

Tyrone Givans (Pictured below) was a 32-year-old male from North London described by his Mum as a calm, humble young man. Givans was a profoundly deaf male, arrested, charged, and remanded for an assault occasioning actual bodily harm.  Givans was awaiting trial at HMP Pentonville but after only three weeks he tragically committed suicide.  At the coroner’s inquest, the prison was found responsible for a number of contributory factors including services not sharing relevant information (Givans had already disclosed to police and prison escort services that he wanted to kill himself), his needs around being profoundly deaf (the prison health professional did not see the need to order Givans a hearing aid) and his substance and alcohol misuse combined with mental health difficulties. 

HMP Pentonville in Focus

There are previous cases where HMP Pentonville’s lack of care towards safety of its prisoners were found to contribute to the avoidable deaths. For example, in 2003, staff ignored a cell alarm and were found to be playing backgammon.  Consequently detainee Paul Calvert, who had raised the alarm, was then found dead, hanging in his cell. The prison was again found by the Jury at Givens inquest to have caused significant contributory factors towards his suicide.

The subsequent Action Plans following Inspections completed by the prison inspectorate did not show signs of any consistent reform for changes advised to the Prions Service by the BDA in 2016, including: training prison staff in the use of BSL to a suitable level to hold a meaningful conversation; the use of a text phone for Deaf prisoners to have contact with family, friends and solicitors; inviting local Deaf charities into the prison to raise awareness of staff and prisoners to improve attitudes towards Deaf prisoners.  These reasonable and inexpensive recommendations do not feature in any of HMP Pentonville’s most recently published action plans.

Alternative approach? –  HMP Dovegate Therapeutic Prison

HMP Dovegate is a purpose-built Therapeutic prison which works on individuals’ emotional regulation and behavioural issues, with a view to reducing re-offending rates. The prison is divided into four 40-bed communities run on a democratic basis. There is an additional community for prisoners (referred to as residents) with a learning disability and/or lower IQ, known as ‘TC+ community’.  The + element is funded and co-commissioned by the NHS and HMPPS. This approach could be an alternative to the current standard UK Prison estate, however, it requires joint commissioning and additional investment from the MoJ.


There remains a significant risk of social harms being inflicted onto Deaf prisoners. The social harms are psychological (triggering isolation caused by lack of effective communication), physical (death by suicide) and financial (lack of access to training and education). The opportunities for the Ministry of Justice to act upon recommendations made by Coroner’s inquests and independent review bodies have not been taken up

A recommended starting point would be to monitor the numbers of Deaf prisoners which would provide an understanding of the scale and make a case for collaborating across the prison estates to benefit from economies of scale to commission Deaf across the estate. The recent BSL Act may improve its availability within UK prisons which would enable Deaf prisoners to have better access to prison services, effective communication with prison and health staff and education and training opportunities.

If the current system does not change, it seems only a matter of time before another Deaf prisoner’s life is lost.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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