ATLANTA (WJBF) – When Jerry Coen was cuffed, he lost not only his freedom but the most basic ability to communicate for 10 years.
“I went to jail and I was still handcuffed behind my back,” Jerry tells me through his interpreter, Scott Huffman. “People thought I was crazy but all I was trying to do was trying communicate with them. I was trying to use body language.”
Jerry did not have an interpreter at his arrest, when he was taken into jail, or when he signed a plea deal that put him in prison for a decade.
Once he was behind bars, he says he was repeatedly put in “the hole”–that’s solitary confinement–for insubordination after not following verbal orders:
“It’s very dark, you can’t see,” Jerry tells me. “It’s like extra punishment, its like abuse.”
“Imagine living in a world where you cannot understand what’s going on around you,” says Sean Young, Legal Director at ACLU of GA. “Where people are telling you to do things that you don’t understand, and then punishing you for breaking those rules.”
The lawsuit claims Jerry couldn’t take anger management classes to try to correct himself because the Corrections Department refused to provide an interpreter.
Another plaintiff says he was told he could not have an interpreter because “English is the official language of Georgia” and he could learn to deal with it.
The suit claims that prisoners couldn’t take the basic classes available to all other prisoners, classes necessary for parole.
“Deaf people in Georgia prisons are in prisons longer essentially because they’re deaf,” Sean Young tells me. “This is not the kind of Georgia most people want to live in. It’s cruel, it’s unnecessary and it does nothing to protect our community.”
“Hearing guys in there and they can call family. They seem joyous and excited but for us deaf folks we have to wonder what’s going on with our family and we’re sad. Really isolated and disconnected,” Jerry tells me.
And it’s not only about what deaf prisoners don’t get to do, but what’s done to them.
Jerry claims his hearing aid, which allowed him to hear vibrations of loud noises, was stepped on and crushed by a guard.
An internal incident report found it had “no personal impact” on him.
He also says he tried repeatedly to communicate in writing, but for him and other prisoners, those notes were thrown away right in front of him:
“Guards know people like Mr. Coen are deaf and cannot verbally communicate. If a deaf person in prison communicates in a piece of writing and the prison guard does this (pretends to crumple and throw away paper) and throws it away, it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that they’re doing this to be cruel,” says Young.
The suit specifically alleges that the Georgia Department of Corrections has violated prisoners’ Fourth and Eighth Amendment rights, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The attorney filing the suit said they aren’t looking for special treatment for deaf prisoners, just the same equal access as others.
Since the suit was filed on Wednesday, I’ve repeatedly reached out to GDOC but have received no response.