Deaf prisoners are trapped in frightening isolation

June 25, 2018


(CNN)Jerry Coen, a former inmate of the Georgia state prison system, was clean-cut in a bright Nike polo when we connected on Skype. Though we had never met before and were hundreds of miles apart, we were tethered to one another by a shared language and community, and he gave me a smile that mirrored my own -- one of relief at being able to communicate directly to another Deaf person in American Sign Language (ASL). It's a simple act that, for a long time, Coen was denied.

"From the minute you go in, you're trapped in every way," he said. "You're trying to communicate but you can't understand the rules, or any of the information from the loudspeaker; it's a total communication breakdown."
On Wednesday, the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Corrections, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles and several individual defendants, alleging systematic discrimination and abuse of its deaf and hard-of hearing inmates. Coen, 44, is one of 14 plaintiffs in the suit who says he suffered under the department's ableist practices, including denied requests for sign language interpreters, denial of medical and mental healthcare, and violence at the hands of guards.