Perspectives in Belonging: Talila Lewis

This piece was originally published in our We Too Belong report and is part of our work in inclusive practices in immigration & incarceration. 

Talila Lewis is an attorney-activist who is working to increase access to the legal system for deaf and disabled individuals. Lewis founded and directs Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), an all volunteer nonprofit organization that develops innovative approaches to creating a universally accessible legal system.

My journey into the world of deaf wrongful conviction and abuse of prisoners with disabilities began during my internship at the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. During the course of my internship, we received a letter from a culturally Deaf man who was a native signer. Like many Deaf people, American Sign Language was his first language and he struggled with the English languge. During the course of the investigation of a heinous crime, the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department interrogated him without an American Sign Language interpreter as required by federal disability rights law. Instead, an officer who allegedly knew how to fingerspell, spelled out each word during his hours-long interrogation. This “interrogation” and other cross-cultural misunderstandings landed this man in prison for the rest of his life.

I began looking into his case and was shocked that no one had noticed any of the countless red flags. This was due to the supreme lack of cultural competency within our justice and legal professions. Later, I learned that during his detention, trial, and following his conviction, this man wrote countless letters to judges, attorneys and legal organizations pleading for assistance. These letters—written in this man’s best attempt English—were summarily dismissed or unanswered for years. It was 2007 when I began working on his case. He had been in prison since the early 1990’s. I am still working on his and numerous other possible deaf wrongful conviction cases, pro bono.

My struggle to locate culturally competent attorneys with the requisite knowledge and resources, and barriers that I encountered investigating innocence cases as a “mere concerned citizen,” led me to law school and to create Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD). Obviously innocent deaf people pleading for me to provide advocacy to improve their prison conditions prior to me working on their innocence cases led me to expand the scope of the organization, develop a national database of deaf and blind prisoners, and to advocate prisoners with disabilities across the nation. Astoundingly, in 2016, most departments of corrections still do not screen for or provide accommodations to prisoners for sensory disabilities, so abuse has gone unchecked for years and continues to go unchecked even today.

Our courts are equally unjust. As recently as April 2016 a defense attorney, prosecutor and judge forced a Deaf defendant’s sister—who was neither qualified nor certified (even if she was qualified and certified, would be barred by ethics from interpreting for someone to whom she was related)—to interpret during a formal hearing at which the defendant was sentenced to numerous years in prison. Sadly, this is not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination. I regularly receive stories about human and civil rights violations committed by the very people who are tasked with upholding and administering justice in courts around the nation.

For all of this (and more), I do not call the criminal legal system a “justice” system.

My refraining from using the word “justice” to refer to this system is my attempt to avoid perpetuating the harmful myth that the legal system is just when all evidence points directly to the contrary.

Though rarely discussed, it is not uncommon for deaf people and people with disabilities to be wrongfully convicted due to failures of officers, attorneys, and the courts to provide equal access to even the most basic rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution and long-standing federal disability rights laws.

Then, once deaf and disabled people are institutionalized, they are physically and sexually assaulted, and subjected to depressing isolation and other forms of horrendous exploitation. Indeed, Deaf prisoners customarily experience discrimination and terrible abuse in our prisons—punished for failure to obey oral commands that they cannot hear, for using sign language to communicate, for failure to follow rules that were never conveyed to them, for missing counts that they were unaware of, and for filing grievances about these persistent inequities. They are denied interpreter services, deprived of access to medical and mental health services, denied access to education and reentry programs, and cut off from access to even the most basic human interaction.

All of this, coupled with the expensive and inaccessible telephone systems that make it near impossible for advocates and attorneys to provide support, and for deaf incarcerated individuals to keep in contact with advocates, friends and loved ones. In fact, there are several prisoners who I believe to be wrongfully convicted, but for whom I cannot investigate their cases because there are no videophones in the vast majority of our prisons and jails.

At HEARD, which is an all-volunteer organization, we have numerous priorities that span every phase of our criminal legal system for people with disabilities and deaf people. Some of our current priorities include decriminalization of disability such that officers do not resort to violence when they come across individuals who do not immediately respond as “they should;” ensuring equal access to legal counsel, ending sexual and physical assault of deaf/disabled incarcerated individuals; and ensuring that deaf returned citizens have equal access to parole and probation to decrease the likelihood returning to carceral institutions.

As previously noted, another primary concern is equal access to telecommunications for deaf and disabled incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. I created and have led the Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign since 2012. Through this campaign, incarcerated and non-incarcerated individuals have been lobbying the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Prisons to take meaningful action to remedy the injustice of thousands of deaf and disabled individuals (and of incarcerated individuals with deaf or disabled loved ones) not having access to accessible telecommunications.

Deaf and disabled prisoners are becoming depressed, suicidal and literally going mad simply because our prisons, the private prison phone companies and agencies that should be enforcing federal disability rights laws will not ensure that jail and prison telecommunications is accessible for all people.

While many have begun the important discussion surrounding about the harms our criminal legal system visits upon many communities, there is very little attention given to the injustices visited upon people with disabilities and deaf people by this system. And yet, people with disabilities are the most susceptible to unjust encounters within our legal system and represent the largest “minority” group within our prisons. Annually, more than half of the people killed by law enforcement are people with disabilities; children with disabilities are five times more likely to end up incarcerated than their non-disabled peers; and our jails and prisons are quite literally overflowing with people with disabilities—with studies showing that disabled people represent 60-80% of the prison population. It is impossible to address the crisis of mass incarceration without addressing our systematic failure to provide equal access to justice for people with disabilities and people who are Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, and hard of hearing.

Disability is the tie that binds—it is represented across race, socio-economic class, gender, sexual orientation, faith, and country of origin. For myriad reasons, Black people, people of color, indigenous and native nations, low and no income community members, and women, are all disproportionately represented in the class of disability. Our communities experience common and overlapping oppressions that require an advocacy framework that cuts across identities and across movements.

We have to re-envision [criminal] justice—keeping in mind that crime is constructed by society. We have to reimagine "crime" and reimagine “justice.” What could justice look like if we applied a racial justice, economic justice and disability justice lens? We need to create disability solidarity within every movement, such that disability rights organizations are working to create racial justice and non-disability rights civil rights organizations working toward disability justice. Policywise, the same is true. When will we see actual innocence legislation that is disability-responsive? When will we see appellate courts revisiting every conviction of a Deaf individual who had no access to legal counsel? When will we hold school districts accountable for not engaging in trauma-informed education that centers the whole humanity of our youth? Until we can say NOW to each of these and many other similar questions, we will continue to see shameful injustice within our criminal legal system, and mass incarceration will continue to live here.