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Wright to be only deaf inmate in Pierre

by Terry Woster

PIERRE – Daphne Wright, spared a death sentence by a Minnehaha County jury, soon will join five other women serving life without parole in the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre.

Wright, 43, is deaf. While state Corrections Department officials say they’ll make accommodations for that, in most respects the Sioux Falls woman will be treated the same as the other lifers and for the most part, the same as the other 320 or so inmates in the prison at the east edge of the capital city.

“There are five females currently serving life in prison in South Dakota,” said Michael Winder, spokesman for the DOC. “All are housed at the Women’s Prison in Pierre.”

When Wright reaches the prison depends on Minnehaha County, he said. “The transport of an inmate to the prison is the responsibility of the county.”

It’s possible Wright would become part of the general prison population.

“As a general rule, no, they (lifers) are not separated from general population,” Winder said.

But it depends on the individual, the security classification level, behavior inside the prison and other factors, he said.

“Many are in general population, have cell mates, have jobs inside the walls or are in classes while in prison,” Winder said.

Wright’s deafness, though, is recognized as a disability covered by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, says David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.

“There’s no question that under the ADA, deafness is a disability, and the prison there must make reasonable accommodations to provide programs and services,” Fathi said Friday.

The key assessment of whether Wright is receiving the proper treatment is the reasonable access to programs and services available to other inmates, Fathi said.

“The obligation is square on the DOC out there to make sure that happens,” he said.

A 2001 study of violent offenders among the deaf prison population in Texas stated that deaf offenders “had substantially lower levels of academic achievement and reading ability, which is representative of existing differences between deaf and hearing people in general.”

The study also said “the vast majority” of deaf inmates in the Texas prison population communicated with American Sign Language or some other form of manual communication.

None of the women serving time in the Pierre prison are deaf, Winder said, and none of the current staff members are fluent in sign language.

The prison has dealt with deaf inmates before, though, and Winder said the process worked generally because some staff members were able to sign, much of the communication was done in writing and interpreters were brought in for such things as disciplinary hearings.

“We have had hearing-impaired inmates in the past, including at the Women’s Prison,” Winder said. “In the past, staff was able to communicate with the hearing-impaired inmates through a variety of ways, including writing and having staff that knew sign language. The Women’s Prison has also utilized staff from the Department of Human Services to assist with activities such as mental health assessments, medical appointments and inmate disciplinary hearings.”

Special equipment is available for telephone communications, he said. Television sets that inmates may buy from the prison commissary include the closed-captioning feature.

“It’s important that a hearing-impaired inmate fully understands what is being communicated in cases such as assessments, appointments and disciplinary hearings,” Winder said.

That’s similar to how the state of Iowa handles deaf inmates, says Fred Scaletta, public and media relations director for the Iowa Corrections Department.

“There are always a few deaf inmates, there are six or seven in our system right now,” Scaletta said. “It’s really not been much of a problem. We do the best we can, try to treat them just like anybody else whenever we can … and meet special needs.”

He said the state Department of Human Rights provides deaf services within the prison. The prison system has TTY telephones, capable of transmitting and receiving text.

Iowa’s prison system has about 770 women among the 8,900 inmates, agency records show. The population includes 31 females and 572 males serving life sentences.

In Minnesota, Department of Corrections statistics show 395 men and 12 women serving life sentences with the possibility of parole, 31 men and no women serving life without parole.

A 2004 report on prisons and jail by the National Association of the Deaf says deaf prisoners “are frequently denied basic due process rights and access to rehabilitation programs and prison services because prison administrators fail to understand their special communications needs.”

Jennifer Ring, director of ACLU of the Dakotas, said the state and Wright might both be ahead if she simply were sent elsewhere to serve her sentence.

“When you have this kind of special-needs prisoner, you ought to look for a state that has a program to meet that need, send the prisoner there and pay the board,” Ring said. “It’s really a very, very miserable existence when you can speak to no one, and no one can speak to you.”

South Dakota could contract with another state to house Wright.

“It’s done from time to time,” Winder said.

There’s been no indication so far that South Dakota is planning to do that with Wright.

The fact that a public discussion is taking place over how Wright will be housed for the rest of her life takes place only because the Minnehaha County jury rejected a death sentence.

Had Wright been sentenced to die, some part of the Women’s Prison would have become a death row, Winder says.

Wright would have been kept in the Pierre prison pending appeals and eventual lethal injection, he said.

“The warden would designate an area within the maximum-security portion of the Women’s Prison for capital punishment housing,” Winder said. “The inmate would be housed alone in a cell, just as is done with male inmates sentenced to death.”

(( Source:  Argus Leader ))