Incarceration: Opportunity or a Sign Language Interpreter’s Scarlet Letter?

Formerly incarcerated individuals acting as sign language interpreters? A knee-jerk reaction may be a resounding, “NO!”. Scott Huffman opens the dialogue about representation, second chances, and the American Dream.

Incarceration: Opportunity or a Sign Language Interpreter's Scarlet Letter?

Greetings. My name is Scott Huffman. I am a father of four, husband, son, friend, mentor, and activist. My day-to-day work consists of being an Outreach Manager/Sign Language Interpreter for Communications Consulting Group. In my spare time, I volunteer with Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) – The ONLY non-profit in America solely focused on Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Hard of Hearing (DDBHH) persons incarcerated and returned. I also serve as the Vice President of the Louisiana Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (LRID) and am a board member for Re-entry Benefitting Families (RBF) who spearheads one of the only Reentry Centers in a local/parish prison in Louisiana.

[View Post in ASL.]

This topic may seem like an interesting twist to the conventional way of becoming a sign language interpreter. One usually envisions a CODA whose L1 is ASL and/or the ITP interpreter. Occasionally, church interpreters transition into the profession. However, the idea of a convicted felon working and functioning within our profession as a sign language interpreter may be shocking to some, spark curiosity in others, and for many, it’s an outright NO! I’d like to share a more humanistic approach to the reality of our profession as it relates to sign language interpreters who have been in trouble with the law and/or wrongly convicted at some point in their lives. Before I go any further, I will share a short synopsis of my personal story and how I became an interpreter.

My Personal Experience

While housed in a state prison serving a five-year prison sentence, I noticed a group of men who used American Sign Language to communicate. Prior to my incarceration, I don’t recall having ever met a person who is DDBHH. After several months of seeing injustices happen to their Community, i.e. no sign language interpreters, frivolous write-up’s for not obeying direct and verbal orders, hearing prisoners who prey on Deaf individuals, sexual & physical abuse, lack of access to self-help, educational, and Religious programs. Witnessing those injustices was the catalyst for my passion to learn sign language and eventually become a sign language interpreter.

After months of trying to memorize a 2D Random House Sign Language Dictionary (One cannot simply learn a 3d language with a 2d book),  I decided to approach the group of ten and introduce myself. For whatever reason, they decided to take me under their wing and share their beautiful language and culture with me. I became enamored with ASL and the Deaf World. Eventually, I was placed into the same dormitory with the men and the rest is history. I entered my 24/7 immersion program.

Not encouraging anyone to seek criminal activity to take place in such a program (joke), however, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. I won’t go into a lot of detail about life in prison for a person who is DDBHH for several reasons, but for the most part because we could be here for days. What I want to outline is the fact that our profession has its fair share of sign language interpreters with “rap-sheets” who breathe, work, and operate in the same spaces without a tattoo on their foreheads that says F-E-L-O-N. They are your average everyday people!

The Challenge of Finding Acceptance

The interpreting profession is a rather hard place to identify as a sign language interpreter with a felonious past. Some will scoff at you, turn their noses up, do their best to make sure you cannot work, and all in the name of “protecting the community.” I have experienced all of the above, but nonetheless, have persevered. Many days, I’ve wanted to quit, but I kept going because I felt the calling. There are many like me within our profession, and many more to come. My goal for this article is to create a safe space for interpreters to “come-out” and feel comfortable as professionals in a profession where their pasts loom over their existence.

Often I hear the sentence, “There are not many places a convicted felon can work as an interpreter.” I think quite the opposite. Myself, there aren’t many places I haven’t been. Not because I haven’t been screened, but because I have earned the trust of my community. That trust is not handed over easily. It literally takes blood, sweat, and tears. My goal is to pave a platform for others like me, or who are coming behind me, to have a space within this profession.

Relatability: Cultural Context Matters

As a profession, we have much knowledge to gain from working with, hiring, and accepting sign language interpreters who’ve been through the system, lived a life outside the white picket fence, and have street knowledge, as well as professional knowledge to bring to the table. Studies have shown that people with similar backgrounds and experience typically relate better those whom they share that experience with. People of Color (POC) relate to interpreters of color more so than non-POCs. Females who are Deaf generally prefer a female at their gynecology appointments. Men who are Deaf typically feel more comfortable with a male interpreter at their urology appointments. I also believe the same is true for persons who are in, have been through, and might be on their way into the system, rehab, and other such environments.

We all know the mind-boggling facts about the current state of our criminal legal system. Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners. One in every 37 adults in the United States, or 2.7% of the adult population, is under some form of correctional supervision. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. Having said that, if we are to create a more diverse profession, the likelihood of encountering a Person of Color with a rap-sheet is very high. It’s quite possible that if we created a safer space within our profession for aspiring interpreters to work without hiding, and/or enter the profession without feeling inferior about their pasts, we would see a more diverse workplace.

Food for Thought

Sign language interpreters who have felonies can conduct themselves professionally, ethically, and skillfully as does any other qualified/certified interpreter. Simply having a past should not define one’s future. If that were the case, most of our profession would be out of luck!

While I have encountered much discrimination and backlash for my unconventional way of entering the field of sign language interpreting, I’ve managed to keep my composure in knowing that I have a purpose and my family and others depend on me to carry it out. We are regular people. While I cannot speak for everyone, and I can’t promise that there won’t be others who make those of us doing right look bad, I can say that everyone deserves a shot at the American Dream. I encourage all of you to ponder this idea and open up dialogues about how our profession can be more inclusive in accepting people from all walks of life.

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Questions for Consideration

  1. What would a framework of inclusion look like to support interpreters with a past felony conviction?
  2. Should the inclusion and non-discrimination policies held by professional associations supporting the Deaf Community and sign language interpreters be inclusive of those with a felony in their past?
  3. Is a felony an indicator of a sign language interpreters long-term judgment, character, and aptitude for the job? If so, how? If not, why?
  4. How should the industry recognize a debt paid to society while balancing Deaf Community, institutions, and colleague concern?