Oregon deaf advocates call for use of certified prison interpreters

Hands engaged in sign language
American Sign Language

The Oregon Department of Corrections should cease using prison inmates as American Sign Language interpreters and instead use certified interpreters, according to a letter sent September 8 by a trio of disability rights groups.

The letter comes approximately seven months after the Oregon Department of Corrections settled with a deaf inmate for $150,000 after failing to provide him an ASL interpreter, as well as agreeing to provide deaf inmates interpreters for all prison activities in the future, according to the Oregonian.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, prisons must provide deaf inmates “qualified interpreters,” defined as one “who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.”

In the letter, the National Association of the Deaf, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf argue that “inmate interpreters can never be qualified interpreters” and that use of inmates as interpreters jeopardizes the “health, safety, and welfare of deaf inmates in Oregon.”

“At a minimum, use of prisoners as ‘interpreters’ places deaf prisoners at risk of abuse and exploitation,” HEARD Executive Director Talila A. Lewis said in a news release. “This practice raises serious concerns about conflicts of interest, confidentiality and impartiality that necessarily arise in the course of ‘interpreting’ for activities, events, staff-inmate interactions, and educational programs.”

NAD and RID jointly developed a national certification program for ASL instructors, which includes “minimum professional standards, professional development requirements, and adherence to the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct,” according to the letter.

Copies of the letter were also sent to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.