Date of Graduation

Winter 12-13-2013

Document Access

Project/Capstone - Global access

Degree Name

Master of Public Affairs (MoPA)


Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good

First Advisor

Karin Cotterman

Second Advisor

Richard Johnson

Third Advisor

Angela Fleekop


This paper explores the failure of American prison systems to provide communication access to deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. Sign language is sparsely accessible to deaf individuals in prisons. Communication and access to language are key to the human condition and democratic participation. When prison administrations ban sign language, deaf individuals are prevented from accessing programs and services that would lead to lower recidivism rates, and they are prevented from participating democracy. Since use of sign language is a natural part of many individuals’ deaf experience, barring its use is also a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The legislation states that deaf individuals must have equal access to services and benefits provided by public entities. Prisons are one type of public entity, and they are required to provide reasonable accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners. This article addresses issues regarding deaf prisoners’ right to communication and provides a thorough understanding of Deaf culture and communication, and the importance of sign language to both of these. The project attempts to dig deeper into the research question of how sign language is inseparably linked to effective communication access for deaf and hard of hearing people. Secondly, it addresses whether if American Sign Language (ASL) classes should be offered in prisons. The author recommends offering free ASL classes, to improve communication access for deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners, to improve access to services and programs the correctional facility provides and to increase knowledge of and sensitivity to Deaf culture and communication within the staff and hearing prison population. This recommendation and project require further research because the subjects of this project interviews indicated that there may be a split within the deaf prison community as whether to take the classes.