My article “The Silent Treatment” appeared on the Mother Jones website a few days ago. It tells the story of Felix Garcia, a deaf man framed by his own siblings for a murder he did not commit, and given an effective life sentence. His experiences during 30 years in the Florida prison system have been horrendous, but many of them are shared by the tens of thousands of deaf and hard of hearing inmates in prisons and jails across the country. What follows are the opening paragraphs; please click through to Mother Jones to read the article in full.
“This is a collect call from a correctional institution,” says the robotic female voice at the other end of the line. After a moment of confusion, I realize it must be Felix Garcia, whom I’d visited several weeks earlier in a northern Florida prison. He is serving a life sentence for a robbery-murder for which his own brother now admits to framing him. I’d sent him a card for his 50th birthday. It had a picture of flowers—something he probably hasn’t seen in 30 years—and some lame words of encouragement. Now he’s calling to thank me and to plead for help.
His words seem surreal, relayed in the emotionless drone of a TTY operator: Four of his fellow deaf inmates have tried to commit suicide—one somehow managed to swallow a razor blade. It sounds like he’s thinking about doing the same. “Please,” the voice intones, “will you phone my lawyers? I can’t get through to them.”
Felix has been deaf, for all practical purposes, since childhood. For most of his three decades behind bars, which began when he was 19, he’s been housed in the general population with few special services for his disability. His experiences are the stuff of TV prison dramas: He’s ignored or taunted by guards, raped and brutalized by other prisoners. Last year, he tried to hang himself.
“Felix,” I plead awkwardly. “You are not going to kill yourself. Please, please, hold on.”
“I won’t do it,” he says finally. “I have Jesus.”
I repeat: “Do not kill yourself.”
“Yes, sir.” The call abruptly cuts off.
After staring at the phone for a few minutes, I call Pat Bliss, the 69-year-old paralegal who has been working on Felix’s case since 1996, when the Lord told her to minister to prisoners. Pat lives in southern Virginia, almost 600 miles from Felix’s Florida prison. She doesn’t have a lot of money, doesn’t know sign language, and isn’t a lawyer. But for the last 15 years, she has crafted his defense strategies, written motions and briefs, and helped usher his case through the state and federal courts. For the past five years, Felix has called her “Mom.” One lawyer I talked to calls her “an angel.” And that’s something Felix needs more than anyone I’ve ever met…
Felix Garcia and Pat Bliss can be contacted by mail at: P.O. Box 493, Wytheville VA 24382.