Esperanza Dillard &Talila "TL" Lewis


Project Overview

Creating the first reentry program of its kind in the U.S., HEARD centers language and disability justice to support incarcerated and formerly incarcerated deaf/disabled people, who face unique challenges in the criminal legal system. Pervasive lack of access throughout carceral settings deepens social and linguistic isolation for incarcerated deaf/disabled people, who face persistent abuse and neglect. To address the needs of these multiply marginalized communities, HEARD provides peer support, direct services, and harm reduction education that help returning deaf/disabled people heal and thrive. With few accessible resources in American Sign Language or other sign languages that inform deaf/disabled people about how the criminal legal system works, HEARD is developing signs for social justice–related English words that currently have no sign equivalents—such as “mass incarceration” and “abolition”—while also providing some of the only accessible, signed support for learning conflict resolution, restorative justice, and harm reduction. A hallmark of the program is HEARD’s staff of formerly incarcerated deaf people who serve as peer educators and community interpreters, offering empathy and mentorship that foster collective healing.

Five Questions

1What needs does your project address and how?

Every year, HEARD has to help families bury formerly incarcerated deaf/disabled people who tragically and avoidably pass away soon after being released from incarceration. Ableism within our society and institutions leads to disabled people being disproportionately targeted by policing systems and being incarcerated at extremely high rates and with longer sentences than non-disabled people. In addition, incarcerated deaf people experience language/communication deprivation that has an incredibly harmful effect on their mental, emotional, linguistic, and physical health. No organization other than HEARD culturally and linguistically meets the needs of deaf/signing people who are returning home. Our reentry program will fill a huge void.

2Tell us about a moment that helped inspire your idea.

Every month we support deaf/disabled incarcerated people who are eligible for parole but who are prevented from participating in the process at every turn. When our community members do come home, they are traumatized and have often lost their ability to use their sign language. Many of our community members “fail” to navigate probation and prison bureaucracy because none of these systems are accessible nor do they consider the whole humanity of our community members. We refuse to continue to witness these horrific cycles. We use every resource available to save the lives of our community members and support their loved ones.

3What is the biggest challenge you face right now?

We need linguistically and culturally competent deaf/disabled healers and mental health providers to support our reentry project. We are on a nationwide search to put together the right team.

4What other leaders have informed your work?

Equity and Transformation (E.A.T.) from Chicago is dedicated to providing advocacy work for Black Chicagoans. Southerners On New Ground (SONG) in Atlanta is an abolitionist organization that builds social movements for LGBTQ, Black/Indigenous, immigrant, and working-class people. Project NIA is an abolitionist organization that works to end incarceration for young kids and adults. Project LETS specializes in building just, responsive, and transformative peer support collectives and community mental health care structures. The Prison Policy Initiative is a center on research and advocacy on the criminal legal system. The Deaf Well-Being Program in Vancouver provides accessible mental health services and supports harm reduction.

5Describe a participant, client, community member, or someone else who represents what your project is all about.

John Wilson Jr. was a Black deaf/disabled man from Washington, D.C. who was incarcerated for nearly 25 years for a crime he did not commit. HEARD advocates worked for more than a decade to free him, and he was finally released in 2019. He came home to a world that had left him behind. Moreover, his language had completely atrophied due to a quarter century of deprivation. Despite returning home to his family, he could not find peace of mind, language, stability, or a sense of belonging. John passed away just six months after returning home. John is sadly one of many deaf/disabled Black/Indigenous folks who have similar struggles. The lived experiences of our loved ones has made clear that prison is harmful, and traditional reentry programs do not support our communities. We work to decrease the chances of incarceration of our loved ones and provide support to those who have already experienced such violence.

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