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This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

A new community of deaf people arrived at San Quentin State Prison and had to endure a change in prison programming plus a devastating COVID-19 outbreak.

“My COVID experience was awful,” said Jaime Paredes, an incarcerated deaf resident. “We were housed in North Block, but were getting quarantined in Badger Unit. We (the deaf community) was on the same tier but we were spread out. Tommy (Wickerd) was our only incarcerated interpreter.

“We had to make a string line to connect to Tommy’s cell, so he could yell ‘Man down’ if anyone needed emergency medical help,” he added.

After five days, Wickerd was able to inform associate warden Albirton about the challenges, and the deaf residents were sent back to North Block, said Paredes. “As for SQ programming today, I’m like wow! It’s like a little town here,” said Paredes. “I’m here to work on myself and become a productive member of society.”

It took multiple court battles before prison officials allowed deaf people to function on non-handicapped prison yards. San Quentin has a small American Sign Language (ASL) class led by Wickerd. The state provides outside interpreters for the deaf residents in school, vocational programs and self-help groups.

“I am deaf and transgender, and during the COVID outbreak it was a pain to communicate without an interpreter,” said Cristina Toste. “Since the prison is opening back up, I love San Quentin. Everybody has been nice.

“The COs (correctional officers) need more training with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues. I have been trying so hard to help them understand how they can do a better job when it comes to the deaf community,” Toste added.

Toste said she enjoys her transition pre-release/reentry planning class and LGBTQ support group.

At other prisons, the deaf may be subjected to harsher treatment from other incarcerated people and prison staff, according to advocates.

“Deaf people may serve longer prison terms than their hearing counterparts because they are not able to equally access educational and rehabilitative programming,” said Prison Law Office attorney Rita Lomio in an interview.

There are almost 100 rehabilitative programs at San Quentin and any mainline person can apply. However, being deaf can make getting into some of them a challenge.

When the deaf population arrived, they wanted to know if there was a designated place for them to hang out on the exercise yard. With the help of officials, they were given a specific place.

The new deaf residents also encountered numerous alarms — which required the prisoner to get down on the ground. Fortunately, the other San Quentin residents helped alert the deaf residents.

Wickerd interprets and gives the deaf residents tours of the prison. He also has a new deaf cellmate.

“I taught sign at Lancaster prison, where I was able to relay messages of change from gang members and testimony from youngsters on peer pressure and choices,” Wickerd added. “So, doing this is a pleasure.”

Wickerd brought nine deaf residents in green vests to the SQ Media Center to ask questions and look at the scenery.

There are currently almost 100 deaf inmates within CDCR. A majority are currently housed in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Corcoran, California. According to some prisoners’ rights advocates, housing these inmates at SATF makes it difficult to provide them needed interpretation services.

Director Don Specter of the Prison Law Office wrote to Ralph M. Diaz, then secretary of CDCR, to explain the situation.

He wrote that housing deaf people at San Quentin would allow them to “have improved access to interpretation services, to more and varied programs, services, and activities, to community groups familiar with their needs.”

“I love the environment and everybody spoke to me,” said Dubose Scarborough, via sign language through an interpreter.

He came from Corcoran State Prison with four years left on his prison term. He looks forward to doing the vocational programs.

The ADA provides protections for the deaf to receive treatment equal to those without a disability. Examples include phone calls, TDD telecommunication devices for deaf persons at the hours of phone use for the non-handicapped, and other services.

“I’m pleased with how the deaf and hard-of-hearing community is treated here,” said Richard Acosta. “It has definitely been a life-changing experience living with so many positive inmates around me. I look forward to the ASL classes and joining the 1,000 Mile running club.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Timothy Hicks is a staff writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.