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Twice imprisoned : loss of hearing, loss of power in federal prisoners in British Columbia Dahl, Marilyn Olive


Problems experienced by individuals in institutions tend to be hidden from the public gaze. This is so for inmates of prisons where regulations and bureaucratic structure conceal the daily life situation of prisoners from public view. Anonymity and concealment are enhanced by the widespread misperception of prisoners as an homogenous group. As a result, problems of vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, can be ignored. One such group is prisoners with impaired hearing. This descriptive study utilized a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the problems experienced by prisoners within the context of social control. Drawing from selected literature in health, sociology and criminology, the theoretical framework merges the labelling perspective [interactionism] with macro-level theories of social control. The study provides, for the first time, an examination of the percentage, degree and social import of hearing loss in federal prisoners in the Pacific Region of the Correctional Service of Canada. Through the use of survey, audiometric measurement, and interview techniques, an examination was undertaken of the presence and implications of partial hearing loss in inmates of federal penitentiaries in British Columbia. Interview subjects were identified through hearing testing of volunteers in eight federal penitentiaries. Data were gathered through interviews with prisoners with impaired hearing, a comparison group of prisoners with normal hearing, and a selection of custodians. Of 114 prisoners screened, 69% had some degree of impaired hearing, often previously unidentified. Custodians, 86% of the time, labelled behaviours characteristic of the hard of hearing as deviant, and often aggressive, behaviours. Prisoner accounts revealed that failure to test hearing at time of incarceration has harmful effects on performance in programmes and encounters with the justice system. A social activist approach is recommended, to address structural inequalities among prisoners and barriers for prisoners in general. This work indicates that lower-class, lower-status persons may be more susceptible to negative labelling. Prisoners with partial hearing loss, due to the often invisible nature of their condition, are particularly vulnerable to negative labelling. Study recommendations include: 1] Routine hearing screening of all prisoners at time of incarceration. 2] Education of custodians to understand behaviours and communication needs of persons with impaired hearing. 3] A partnership effort between correctional services, the disabled consumer group, and professionals, to improve the situation of prisoners who are hard of hearing.

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