“A nightmare of vulnerability”

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Mother Jones recently featured the saga of Felix Garcia, a man who is deaf  serving a life sentence in prison for a robbery-murder for which his own brother now admits to have committed.

Empty Jail Cell

Prison and people with disabilities

Garcia has lived in a northern Florida prison since he was 19. He has been raped and brutalized. His four fellow inmates who are deaf have attempted suicide. Last year, he tried to hang himself.

Garcia’s experience reflect that of many of inmates with disabilities, in what David Fathi, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project  called “a nightmare of vulnerability, abuse, and exclusion from the most basic prison programs and services.”

In 1984, Garcia was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to a concurrent 99 years for armed robbery in a maximum-security lockup prison.

He lagged in the prison until he was found by at Pat Bliss, a 69-year-old paralegal who has been working on his case for 15 years.

After years of research by Bliss and a variety of legal motions, Garcia’s brother admitted in 2003 that he set up Garcia, who says he was at home eating pizza with his mother at the time of the murder. However, the case was later dismissed and Garcia remains in the prison. He is not eligible for parole until 2024.

When Garcia was arrested, he was unaware that he was read his Miranda rights. His hearing aid didn’t work at the trial. He tried to read lips, but the prosecutor often faced away from him.

If the trial had happened later, it may have been overturned due to Americans with Disabilities Act violations requiring the criminal justice steps to take “reasonable steps” to accommodate people with disabilities. But for many defendants who are deaf, this promise has fallen drastically short.

“Deaf people have a hard time when they are thrown into the criminal-justice system,” says MacKay Vernon, a psychologist and authority on the deaf who is familiar with the details of Felix’s situation. “The courts—judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers—just don’t understand what they’re up against. Turning up the sound system doesn’t mean the defendant better understands what’s going on.”