By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Video by Jeff Baur, CDCR TV Specialist
A group of inmates gathered in the library at Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) is engrossed in conversation, enthusiastically sharing stories and planning what today’s class will cover.
The room is completely silent.
These men are part of the American Sign Language (ASL) course offered at DVI, a popular class in which students learn a new language and discover abilities within themselves they never knew they possessed.
“I came to prison with low self-esteem. When I came to prison, I had an eighth-grade education,” said Eric Taylor, the program’s inmate facilitator. “When I got here and found out I could learn and what I was learning could be used by other people, I started to mature.”
While working as the Americans with Disabilities Act clerk at DVI, Taylor found several hearing-impaired inmates were processing through the reception center, and he was frustrated he couldn’t communicate with them.
(Editor’s note: Here is a video of the DVI American Sign Language group on YouTube:
Or at https://MEDIA.cdcr.ca.gov/OPEC/2014/DVI SIGN LANGUAGE.wmv. You must use Internet Explorer to view the latter video. The latter video also is the one most likely to be viewable on a CDCR computer.)
He asked for an ASL book, and started learning. Soon, the institution’s ASL interpreter, Tom Beierle, was helping Taylor learn, and finding him inmates to communicate with.
The idea for the class was born, and approved by the warden. Taylor said when the first class was formed in 2011, he expected enrollment would be low, and was pleasantly surprised to see nearly 50 inmates show interest.
Today, the class is limited to about 20 participants per session, and there’s always a waiting list.
“It builds confidence in themselves, it builds awareness of another culture,” said Beierle, the class’ staff sponsor.
Born to deaf parents, sign language has been a main form of communication his whole life. Before coming to work at DVI, he was an interpreter within the San Diego Unified School District and Community College District, and at the University of San Diego.
Beierle holds a Certificate of Interpretation and Certificate of Transliteration with the National Registry of Interpreters, and a Level 5 Certification with the National Association of the Deaf.
Taylor’s interest in nonverbal communication goes back decades to when he performed as a mime on the streets of San Francisco. Being an expressive person has helped him greatly in developing ASL skills, as eye contact and facial expression are nearly as vital to communicating as the hand signs.
During his incarceration, Taylor has earned a four-year degree, which is required to become an ASL interpreter. He’d like to use his skills to work with deaf children on the outside.
No matter what job he finds, he said his time spent learning ASL will help him succeed on the outside.
“You can take it with you when you leave, and you can help other people,” Taylor said. “It helps your own character, and it stops prejudice, because prejudice is based in fear of the unknown, and once you understand a culture, you have no fear of them, so you have no prejudice.”
Louie Chavez has been hearing-impaired since birth, and said he didn’t know about ASL until coming to prison. His whole life, he’d communicate through finger spelling or lip-reading, which can take an agonizingly long time. Today, Chavez is happy to be communicating with people who understand and accept him.
“It makes me feel better about myself,” he said. “I don’t feel like an outcast anymore.”
Inmate Miguel Cortez said he wasn’t especially interested in learning sign language, but saw the class as just one more opportunity to gain knowledge and better himself. As his skills progress, he’s proud of how far he has come.
“Who knows when you might need it?” he laughed. “It’s like having a book of matches. You don’t know if you’re going to get trapped in the forest, but at least you have a way to light a fire.”
Learning sign language is not easy. It’s one thing to look at a book or watch a DVD to see the signs formed, but it’s a whole different ball game when it’s time to hold a conversation with another signer.
All the men in the program agree: Practice is essential.
“You have to practice and you have to use it,” Taylor said. “I guess it’s like golf. You can’t watch it on TV and get a hole-in-one.”
But the practice pays off, both in a language learned and friendships formed. The ASL program comprises men who don’t have much in common, but have united around a common goal: to learn with each other, to practice with each other and to excel at ASL.
“There is a tremendous bond among this entire group,” Beierle said. “We do a lot of laughing, we do a ton of signing and when we’re in the corridors and we see each other, we sign. It’s a phenomenal group.”
“When we come to this class, you can be having a bad day, and then as soon as we get here we start signing, and the next thing you know we start laughing, and it turns all good after that.”
More related to disabilities:
Meet a disability placement program teacher, http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2013/06/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-disability-placement-program-teacher/
Meet a former inmate who is now a successful Braille businessman (includes video and links to other rehabilitative programs), http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/06/former-inmate-visits-cmf-as-successful-braille-businessman/