No Way to Call Home: Incarcerated Deaf People Are Locked in a Prison Inside a Prison

Silent Voices is truly silent. The group’s three members are doing what looks like a dance in the front of a classroom at a state prison near the banks of the Mississippi River, just south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, performing their version of the song “I Believe” by R. Kelly. Instead of singing, the performers are interpreting R. Kelly’s lyrics into American Sign Language, or ASL, the sign language most commonly used in the United States. ASL is an animated language. Gestures, facial expressions and even foot-stomping the floor to a beat allow ASL speakers to add context, detail and music to their conversations. The three men in Silent Voices are stunning in this way. The performance is part ASL, part gospel choreography and it’s contagiously uplifting — in stark contrast with the backdrop of armed guards and barbed wire. The classroom erupts into applause.

Standing at the back of the classroom, Susan Griffin is beaming with pride. Griffin, a lead attorney for the state prison system, says this song is a real crowd pleaser at the gospel revivals held at Angola, the notoriously brutal prison farm to the north. “For me, it brings everything together,” she says.

The members of Silent Voices and a dozen or so classmates are all part of the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ ASL interpreting program, which Griffin touts as one of a kind, at least in the US. Qualified prisoners can earn a certificate in ASL interpreting, which could potentially lead to job opportunities if they are released. Louisiana also uses these “offender interpreters” to interpret for the deaf population in its vast prison system…

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