Advocating for the rights of deaf prisoners

Several Gallaudet University students are working to improve the American justice system for the deaf by interning with Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), a D.C.-based nonprofit organization.

HEARD recently was featured in two episodes of Al Jazeera America series "America Tonight." "Deaf In Prison" focused on the plight of deaf and hard of hearing inmates in prisons throughout the United States, and HEARD kicked off a #DeafinPrison social media campaign during which it promoted the Al Jazeera episodes on YouTube.

Corinna Hill is one of the Gallaudet students who helped HEARD with its outreach efforts. "I grew up thinking that the prison system was fair, and now I realize it has flaws," said Corinna, a Boonsboro, Md., native and Honors student who majored in history. "Innocent deaf Americans are sitting in prison."

HEARD is a volunteer-run organization founded by American University law student Talila Lewis. After a semester-long externship with the D.C. Public Defense Service, Lewis set a mission: to improve communication accessibility for deaf prisoners and fight for those who have been wrongfully convicted.

"Only five prisons in the U.S. have videophones - Virginia, Vermont, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Maine," Lewis said.

There also are numerous cases of allegedly innocent deaf Americans who have been imprisoned for years, unable to tell their story and without access to interpreters or even a TTY.

HEARD's goal is to travel across the nation educating people about these injustices and promoting equality and freedom for those who have been silenced. Telling people about these situations is just the first step. This is where Corinna's skills came into the picture. Corinna worked on the ground to involve people in sharing HEARD's message. As HEARD's community engagement coordinator, she gathered data from D.C.'s deaf residents. From this data, she developed an informational video encouraging the deaf community to get involved in advocating for the HEARD agenda.

The three-year-old organization also has the nation's only database of deaf prisoners. As a result, other organizations and universities look to HEARD for information and guidance.

Corinna worked with a group of 10 Cornell University students who came to D.C. for a weeklong immersion session learning about HEARD's daily operations.

One of Corinna's biggest accomplishments was presenting testimony to the Maryland House of Delegates in February, urging them to launch the Deaf Culture Digital Library (DCDL). The library system would allow members of the legal and judicial system to access essential information about the needs and accessibility provisions required to prevent communication barriers with members of the deaf and hard of hearing community.

"The DCDL will become an online state resource for the public and legal system to use to learn how to work with the deaf community," Corinna said.

Lewis said she was impressed with Corinna's initiative on projects.

"My goal with the internships I offer is to help both deaf and hearing interns take action in deaf rights in a bicultural environment without communication barriers," Lewis said.

While Corinna acquired many valuable skills, she said it was the new awareness she developed through her internship that was invaluable.

"I benefited from this internship because of my interest in criminal justice, and I got to develop more communication skills," Corinna said.

Although Corinna finished her internship in May, she is still volunteering with the organization.

Corinna Hill graduated in May 2014 with University Honors. Her Honors Capstone thesis was on "The Social Integration of Civil War Veterans with Hearing Loss: The Roles of Government and Media."

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