By Brenda . . .
On Saturday, October 31, RSOL set up a booth at the Expo along with a number of other agencies. Most were state groups, or state chapters of national organizations such as Amnesty International and the Prison Society. The Expo was hosted by DeafCAN (Community Action Network) PA, but was not exclusively focused on the Deaf Community. Plenty of people from that community were present, however, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience for us, and for other national groups. We were invited to attend this event because a high percentage of deaf persons currently in prisons are there for a sexual offense.
With me at the booth were John and Sheri Tynes (member and board member of RSOL respectively) who drove all the way from Ohio to assist. John put together a nice self-playing powerpoint which we had running non-stop at the booth, and we also played a YouTube video – a very multimedia experience! Richard Earl from New Hampshire also drove down to join us for the day. His special focus was on connecting with any RSOL members who wanted to come and talk to us as long as we were in the area. He did connect with several folks while there.
Our main goal at the conference was to educate the wider criminal justice reform community about our particular issue, especially regarding the broad brush applied to registrants and the many difficulties faced by registrants and their families. And of course we also discussed constitutional and civil rights violations. My panel presentation specifically laid out our Assertions.
The bulk of the organizations and attendees were focused on ending mass incarceration, on improving prison conditions in general, and on ending the death penalty and life sentences. Interwoven throughout were stories of the extreme difficulties faced by persons with disabilities. Many of us have heard that we incarcerate far too many people with mental illness who would do much better getting treatment and management within their communities. What we hear less about is the unique problems faced by persons with disabilities who enter the justice system.
As a quick introduction, we learned that police get very little training in dealing with a deaf person. Say someone is pulled over for a traffic violation. He wants to get the officer’s attention to try to show or explain something. You or I would say “excuse me?” but a deaf person taps you on the shoulder or arm. That is Assault. Then you are put into handcuffs. Your hands are what you use to speak! You cannot make a phone call because there is no special phone available. Even if you scribble a number down the officer may just dial it for you and walk away and you are unable to communicate. Writing notes back and forth is not the same, because English really isn’t your native language – Sign is.
In prison you are picked on, your requests for help laughed at, and you are totally isolated because nobody speaks Sign… nor would anyone be allowed to learn because the guards can’t have secret communication going on around them. You again are unable to call home, or if you do the already very expensive call is made more so by the fact that you must type back and forth, with no extra time for that. You can end up in Solitary because you don’t stand for Count… because you cannot HEAR the call to stand up for Count.
As far as RSOL’s efforts, we spoke to a number of other groups about our issue, and hopefully made some connections. My personal hope in attending meetings with other justice reform advocates is two-fold: first is to make sure they are aware of the myths and realities surrounding registered citizens, and second is to do my darnedest to make sure that former sexual offenders are not LEFT OUT of reform efforts.
This seems like a very modest goal, but the potential is huge when you think about it. We all know that the “sex offender” issue is a very toxic one. If you have not been personally impacted, you would probably still be thinking that anyone on a registry “deserved” it, is highly dangerous and you have every right to know who they are. So the educational angle is absolutely critical. Other criminal justice groups need to understand the TRUTH or they will understandably shy away from including former sexual offenders in their reform efforts.
What I am telling these new potential allies, or will when I get the chance, is that we are looking for a seat at the table; an opportunity to help out behind the scenes; and for any reform they put forward, that they NOT EXCLUDE former sexual offenders. We do not need to be out in front screaming about equal rights. Such noise would almost certainly kill any effort they are putting forward. But we can quietly help behind the scenes as they push for Equal Opportunities for ALL convicted persons.
Our presence at this Expo is I hope the first of many such opportunities to join forces with the larger criminal justice community. Keep an eye open for such opportunities in YOUR state, and we will do what we can to assist.