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Topic: Forensic Linguistics
Title: What to Do? In Jail But Can’t Understand the Inmate Handbook: Solutions for the Deaf Offender
Contact Information: Bonnie Goben, MS, Deaf Studies/Education, bgoben@comcast.net, Deaf Interpreter;
Kim Enos, MS, Deaf Studies/Education, Kenos@gt.rr.com, Interpreter; Jean F. Andrews, Ph.D., Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education, Lamar University, Jean.andrews@lamar.edu
Type of Research: Mixed Design: Quantitave Discourse Text Analyses, Qualitative (description)
Subject Pool: 5 texts: 4 jail and 1 prison inmate handbook

Research Description:
From murder to aggravated assault, from car theft to a DUI, deaf and hard of
hearing adults may be incarcerated in a prison or city jail for a day, a week, a month or even years. While behind bars, they are provided the inmate’s handbook. Information in these handbooks are coded in language and the concepts that are used to construct these handbooks are complex. These 30 to 40 page manuals providing detailed information about jail rules and regulations for their day-to-day life in prison are difficult to read. The handbooks also contains valuable information about the prisoner’s rights for services and the right to present grievances and follow a process to get such grievances resolved. The handbook provides vivid descriptions of the types and consequences of misbehavior while in jail.

One major development in the field of applied linguistics has been the growth of forensic linguistics. This involves the application of linguistic research such as discourse analysis (such as written text discourse) to different societal issues related to the law (Trudgill, 2003). Deaf persons have difficulties with language comprehension in general and this situation can be exacerbated when they have encounters involving communication and language comprehension when confronted by the court and the criminal justice system.
This study uses the tools of forensic linguistics and reading to analyze five texts that a deaf person may encounter when incarcerated in jail and prison. A linguistic and reading analyses of each handbook will be provided.


Jail and prison handbooks are typically written at a college reading level, are filled with new concepts, and contain complex vocabulary and grammatical constructions. They are incomprehensible to most deaf adults with low reading levels. In addition, the deaf inmate cannot depend on the hearing officers or the other hearing inmates to explain the rules because these persons do not know sign language.

Deaf and hard of hearing adults (Deaf/HH) adult offenders represent a unique segment of adult language and literacy learners. Many incarcerated deaf persons have a third grade or below reading level (Miller, 2001). Furthermore, they may not have strong sign language skills so that even if an interpreter is provided they may not understand the translation of the prison handbook into American Sign Language (ASL) (LaVigne & Vernon, 2003).

In this research we analyze five inmate handbooks found in Texas, Colorado and Wisconsin jails and prisons by describing its discourse structures. We demonstrate how the discourse structures of the prison handbook are different than those found in newspapers, magazines, novels, emails, legal documents or even captioned television shows and this impedes comprehension of readers with low reading levels. We then provide a readability analysis (reading grade level) of jail/prison handbooks using a computerized software program (Micro Power & Light, Co, 1995). We describe the difficulties that deaf readers will have with the vocabulary, concepts, idiomatic words and phrases and complex grammatical (syntactic) constructions typically found in the handbooks.

We also provide a possible solution to this dilemma of making the handbooks accessible to deaf/hh citizens using Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI) or Deaf Interpreteres (DI). The DI or CDI is trained to not only translate a text but to expand on the concepts found in the text and fill in background knowledge gaps a deaf adult reader with weak signing skills and weak English skills may have in order to make the handbook text comprehensible. Using the DI or CDI to translate these texts not only provides the deaf person with access to the information but it makes the criminal justice officer’s jobs easier to because now the deaf offender understands what is expected when incarcerated. We also suggest further research directions for police departments and criminal justice facilities in making their jails and prisons accessible to deaf persons who are incarcerated.

Anticipated Date of Completion: May 2009