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Criminal Justice

The 'one-size-fits-all' approach in prison is harmful

People with special needs have an especially hard time in prison.
Michael J. Moore January 13th, 2021
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Rocky Connor is 33 years old and has trouble sleeping at night, so he doesn’t like to wake up early. His prison cell is located right in front of the landing where the guards hang out. It has bars rather than a metal door, so guards can see him sleeping while they joke and laugh all morning as if he wasn’t there. It doesn’t wake him because he’s deaf, however, it’s difficult to imagine they know this, as they yell at him almost daily when he doesn’t respond to directives barked at his back. Since COVID-19 covered the faces of everybody in Washington state’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) with masks, Connor has lost the luxury of reading lips and often finds himself staring up blankly into the angry eyes of uniformed aggressors who growl questions such as, “What’s your problem dude? Are you deaf or something?” If he were anybody else living in a facility, his incarcerated neighbors would speak up for him and inform them that, yes, he is, in fact, deaf. But Connor has trouble making people like him because he’s also autistic.

His hair is a light shade of red and matches a beard that grows beneath his glasses. He wasn’t always deaf. Before he was thrust into the foster care system at five, he was beaten so badly it induced permanent damage, which has caused his hearing to progressively diminish over the years. He’s fluent in sign language, English, and Spanish, so he was embraced by the incarcerated Latinx community shortly after entering prison. The recreational areas in MCC open at 7:45 AM, but Connor isn’t enthused by fitness. When his social circle runs to the gym to exercise together, he doesn’t stir until just before noon, when he makes a cup of lukewarm coffee with water from his sink and gets ready for lunch.

He has a pair of green translucent hearing aids at home. He’s had them since he was six, and though they stopped working a long time ago, he’s kept them because green is his favorite color and he likes that he can see all the tiny electronic components. 

Most of his neighbors have televisions in their cells, but Connor’s family can’t afford to buy him appliances. He used to enjoy books on meditation, however, COVID-19 restrictions have shut down MCC’s library for nearly a year, so he’s taken to writing fantasy stories to occupy the long hours in his 6-by-9-foot cage. He had a job as a cook in the kitchen until one afternoon he slipped and sprained his ankle. When he was finally cleared to return to work, his boss appeared in front of him with glaring bloodshot eyes. Unable to understand what was being said beneath the mask, Connor stared silently back, and was subsequently fired.

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After lunch, he usually makes his way into the recreation yard, where he walks alone for an hour, along the quarter-mile track. One afternoon, a guard hobbled behind him, yelling for nearly five minutes before finally catching up and sending him to his cell for wearing weather-resistant work boots, rather than prison-issued jogging shoes. Most days, other prisoners hurl insults at him as he passes because they know he can’t hear them, and that even if he could, he’s unlikely to respond with violence. 

Prison culture isn’t much more than a popularity contest akin to high school, and can be nearly impossible for an autistic man to navigate. When other Latinos see him being picked on, they stick up for him, but they’re not always there because his social ineptitude makes him awkward to spend too much time around. Back in his cell, he does his daily writing and then naps until dinner. Then it’s back to the yard. 

Tonight, the sky is black and spotlights shine down from the 30-foot brick wall that surrounds MCC. There’s a humid chill in the air, which causes clouds to expel from the mouths of residents who stand in groups relaying stories of who they claimed to have been before the Department of Corrections stripped them of their identities. Connor, however, is walking alone. His baby blue beanie cap hugs his head, and his hands are tucked into the pockets of his tan denim jacket. His expression is somehow vacant, yet thoughtful at the same time as he practices the meditation he enjoys, which consists of being mindful of nothing more than one’s own steps. 

After time in the yard, he’ll shower and return to his cell where he’ll lie awake staring at the bottom of the top bunk. Eventually, he’ll fall asleep and repeat this day for the next six years in a system where it doesn’t matter if you’re a low-level drug offender or a mass murderer. If you’re deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, or of a sound mind. The punishment is a one-size-fits-all world in which everybody is equally susceptible to bullying—be it from guards or other incarcerated people—and even for those who may be eventually released, they’ll carry the scars of that time for the rest of their lives. 


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