For nearly three years, HEARD has reported on systemic abuse of deaf, deaf-blind, blind, elderly and disabled prisoners in the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). HEARD’s efforts have helped initiate a formal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that as of the writing of this petition is still ongoing. Sadly, the Florida Department of Corrections still has not addressed widespread abuse of prisoners with disabilities. In fact, abuse has worsened, and the DOC has blocked HEARD’s incoming and outgoing mail, and proposed a rule that, if adopted, would ban prisoners and their advocates from maintaining an Internet presence on any website.
HEARD’s founder sent the following oped about this abuse to major news media in May of this year:
The abuse experienced by deaf prisoners housed in the Florida Department of Corrections defies imagination. HEARD’s Deaf and Deaf-Blind Prisoner Database includes information on more than 400 men and women, in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The abuse and violations occuring in Florida are, by far, the worst that we have seen.
Florida’s most vulnerable prisoners — those who are deaf, deaf-blind, blind, elderly and mentally and physically disabled — are the victims of extreme violence and sexual abuse. We have reported these abuses for nearly three years to no avail. Specifically, this abuse has been reported to the governor, the current and former DOC secretaries, the Office of the Inspector General, the ADA Coordinator, and wardens and corrections officers. Still, terrible human and civil rights violations persist.
The DOC has systematically created a culture of fear and hopelessness for disabled prisoners. Its failure to provide accommodations for and protections to this population is beyond reproach. Many of Florida’s deaf prisoners, fearful of brutal retaliation and assured of prison officials’ apathy or complicity, have all but given up hope of living safe from fear of sexual and physical assault.
One deaf prisoner risked his life to report to the Inspector General horrendous physical and sexual abuse of other prisoners with disabilities at Tomoka Correctional Institution. This complaint resulted in at least two officers being fired and numerous prisoners being transferred out of the facility.
After the Inspector General’s Office informed staff that this prisoner was responsible for the “anonymous” report, violence against prisoners with disabilities grew worse. Despite threats on his life by staff and prisoners alike, and despite requests from advocates not to send this prisoner back to Tomoka, the DOC did just that. He has not been heard from by any of those community members with whom he consistently maintains contact.
In addition to perpetuating human rights abuses against deaf prisoners, the DOC also fails to ensure adequate accommodations for prisoners with disabilities pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and other state and federal laws that exist to protect the rights of people with disabilities.
The Florida Department of Corrections’ actions and inactions are a mark of shame on the state and our nation.
Talila A. Lewis
HEARD will continue to share information with the public to raise awareness of ongoing human and civil rights abuses in the Florida Department of Corrections as we work to ensure that all prisoners are treated humanely and have equal access to programs and services. You can help by contacting Warden Terry Royal, Secretary Michael Crews, Governor Rick Scott, and Florida Congressmen.