The Silent Treatment Imagine Serving Decades in Prison for a crime your sibling framed you for. Now Imagine it Profoundly Deaf by James Ridgeway

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 grew up in a working-class home on the edge of the Hyde
Park section of Tampa, Florida, one of six children in a Cuban
American family. He was born with normal hearing, but almost from
birth he suffered from severe ear infections. A former schoolmate who
knew him when they were teenagers remembered how Felix would complain
regularly of headaches and earaches, and often miss school: “Felix
wore cotton balls in his ears every day,” to keep pus from leaking
out, she explained.

By all accounts, Felix was a good-looking boy with a sweet demeanor
who sometimes compensated for his hearing loss by getting girls to
tutor him—or even help him cheat. When Felix was very small, he told
Pat, his parents once took him to a clinic to have his ears looked at,
but he can’t recall receiving any treatment. In any case, the problem
persisted. “I asked Felix why his parents did not take him to the
doctor,” his schoolmate recalled. Felix in 1984 Courtesy Pat Bliss.”He
told me his parents were ashamed of having a child that could not hear
so they did not want anyone else to know.” By this time, Felix was
having difficulty understanding people even when they spoke up. He
learned to read lips a bit but struggled to speak clearly as he
gradually lost the ability to hear his own voice. “When people talk, I
had to look into their faces,” he would explain in court testimony. “I
hear sounds, and I hear voices. But I can’t make out the words unless
I am looking at the person.” It felt like being underwater.

While still in high school, Felix found work as a brick mason. After
graduating, he had a brief run-in with the law for check kiting,
receiving probation. When he was 19, he and his girlfriend, Michelle
Genco, had a baby girl whom they named Candise. Felix kept doing
masonry work when he could get it and lived with his grandmother, whom
he described as “very poor, but she loved me.” At times, he hung
around with his siblings, some of whom had gotten involved with, as he
puts it, “the street.”

On August 4, 1981, Felix accompanied his brother Frank, his sister
Tina, and her boyfriend, Ray Stanley, to a pawnshop. Frank had a ring
he wanted to hock. He said he didn’t have his ID and asked Felix to
sign the pawn ticket. The ring, it turned out, belonged to a man who’d
been murdered the day before at a motel. Six days later police, having
traced the ticket, arrested Felix at Tina and Ray’s house.

Felix now says that he didn’t understand the officer who read him his
Miranda rights. In any case, he insisted he knew nothing about the
crime, and he refused to sign a statement for the police. Michelle and
her mother both later testified that Felix was with them at the time
of the killing, eating pizza and watching videos at the mother’s home.
But Frank—who knew the victim and had left fingerprints at the
scene—cut a deal with the state to avoid the death penalty. He
pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed robbery and fingered
Felix as the killer. Tina—who married Ray shortly after the
arrest—also agreed to testify against her younger brother. It wasn’t
until nearly a quarter century later that Frank would confess that
Felix had had nothing to do with the crime.

Felix’s plight “is tragic,” says attorney Dick Watts. “Felix smiles,
nods…but he doesn’t understand.”
At Felix’s trial, in 1983, an expert declared that the defendant had a
70-decibel hearing loss, which is considered severe deafness. Through
most of the proceedings, he had cotton in his ears to stop the pus.
Felix was given a hearing aid, which he said didn’t work, and a
loudspeaker, which amplified noise but didn’t help him understand what
people were saying. He tried to read lips, but the prosecutor often
faced away from him, and he had no clear view of the witness box. In
other words, he was largely clueless as to what was going on.

“Deaf people have a hard time when they are thrown into the
criminal-justice system,” says MacKay Vernon, a psychologist and
authority on the deaf who is familiar with the details of Felix’s
situation. “The courts—judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers—just
don’t understand what they’re up against. Turning up the sound system
doesn’t mean the defendant better understands what’s going on. He just
hears more noise. In the case of Felix, sign language interpreters
wouldn’t be much help because at the time of the trial he couldn’t
understand signs. And anyhow, sign language interpreters can’t keep up
with the speech in courts. Moreover, deaf people often don’t have the
vocabulary to understand. Their ability to read can lag far behind
hearing people.”

“His father told me he once had a son named Felix, but that person was
in the Polk Correctional Institution.”
Even when he took the stand, Felix struggled to understand what the
lawyers were asking him. Years later, after reviewing the trial
transcript, Pat asked Felix why he had been so quick to answer “yes”
to one question after another. “If I say no, they’re going to think
I’m stupid,” he replied. “Plus I wanted to get off the stand and go
home. And Frank told me they would not convict me for something I
didn’t do.” At another point, Felix said, “If I say no, they will do
it all again…I spent a long time in that place. I wanted out.” (By
trial time, he already had been in jail for two years.) “It is
tragic,” says Dick Watts, a criminal attorney who later helped
represent Felix. It’s easy to be confused because “Felix smiles,
nods…but he doesn’t understand.”

On July 23, 1983, Felix was convicted on the basis of his siblings’
testimony and the pawn ticket he’d signed for Frank—the only piece
of physical evidence against him. He received a life sentence for
first-degree murder and a concurrent 99 years for armed robbery and
was placed in a maximum-security lockup. He and Michelle parted ways,
and he never saw her again (although he has recently been in touch
with his grown daughter). His mother visited a few times, but then he
called Pat to say he’d received a letter from his parents saying they
were moving to Tennessee, and that if Felix ever got out he shouldn’t
bother looking for them. When Felix’s childhood friend connected with
the family years later, “His father told me he once had a son named
Felix, but that person was in the Polk Correctional Institution.”

Felix in 1999 Courtesy Pat Bliss.At Polk, Felix met a few other deaf
inmates, who taught him some sign language. But his world grew ever
more silent and menacing as he lost what was left of his hearing. By
1987, when he finally got an operation that helped stop the pus
drainage, he was profoundly deaf. In prison, Felix lived alone in a
kind of sensory solitary confinement—until Pat Bliss found him.

To get to Pat’s home from Washington, DC, you drive five hours south
through the Shenandoah Valley, with the Blue Ridge Mountains on the
left and the Alleghenys rising to the right. Wytheville, a town of
about 8,000 tucked into the rolling hillsides of western Virginia, is
little more than one long street surrounded by horse and cattle
pastures. A country road winds out of town, past the turnoff for the
First Assembly of God church, which Pat describes as her home away
from home. A little further on, atop a hill, stands a five-sided house
that serves as her one-woman defense headquarters.

Pat is a short, thin woman, twice married, once widowed, and now in
the midst of a divorce. She lives alone in this big house decorated
with teddy bears and wallpaper with pictures of deer. When she speaks,
she is right to the point, and if you need some fact about Felix,
she’ll hustle into her office, where the walls are adorned with photos
and documents from his case. His only personal possessions, his early
photo albums, are displayed on one shelf.

Pat grew up on carnival lots in Canada. “My mom and dad made candied
apples, saltwater taffy, cotton candy, caramel crisp, and traveled to
local fairs and carnivals in Ontario,” she explains. “Ever since I was
eight years old, I was running the cash register.” The family
eventually moved to Florida, where Pat spent eight years working as a
flight attendant for United Airlines. She later got married and was
living in Clearwater and working for Bic when her husband, Jack, one
day called to her to “come see this guy on TV.” It was Jimmy Swaggart.
“I felt the spirit of the Lord,” she recalls. “That’s what I needed.
It filled this empty void in me.”

Felix could well have had his conviction overturned, one lawyer told
me, were it not for a legal technicality.
She was born again on Palm Sunday in 1986. But after Jack died of
cancer, Pat was at loose ends, watching a lot of cop shows on TV. Her
life changed in December 1990, when “I got a prophetic message from
the Lord,” she recalls; a woman in her Bible study “spoke out the
message” that he was sending her to work among prisoners. Soon
afterward, she heard about the work of Chuck Colson—the Watergate
conspirator who went on to found a ministry called Prison
Fellowship—and attended one of his weekend trainings.

Dedicating herself to her new calling, Pat took courses in law and
landed a job at a county law library. She also began working for
defense lawyers as a liaison to the local jails. After she helped an
indigent prisoner who had been sentenced to many more years than the
law allowed, inmates began seeking her out. In October 1996, she got a
package from an inmate at Polk who was helping Felix Garcia with sign
interpretation. The package contained some of Felix’s legal documents
and a note that said, “This is a charity case. See what can be done.”
By the time she’d finished reading the file, Pat was determined to
help Felix.

She immediately started preparing motions aimed at overturning Felix’s
conviction in the Florida courts. The first motion, arguing that
Felix’s constitutional rights were violated because of his inability
to understand trial testimony, was quickly shot down. In Florida, as
in many states, defendants have only two years from the time of their
direct appeal to file such motions. The deadline for Felix had passed
some 12 years earlier.

Traditionally, the federal courts have provided recourse for
constitutional claims that have timed out in state courts. But the
Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, championed by Bill
Clinton and passed with broad bipartisan support in the wake of the
Oklahoma City bombing, imposed time limits on such cases. “These
statutes of limitations are just killers,” says Steve Bright, senior
counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, noting that the law
cuts off appeals even in capital cases.

In 2003, Frank sent Felix a letter admitting that he and Ray had done
the killing: “Felix Garcia was never at the scene of the crime or had
any participation.”
Laura Rovner, a former attorney for the National Association for the
Deaf (NAD) who now runs the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of
Denver’s Sturm College of Law, says Felix could well have had his
conviction overturned were it not for that missed deadline. Under the
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, any entity receiving federal money needs
to have an effective communication system in place for the deaf or
hard of hearing. “It is hard to think of a situation where that is
more critical than where somebody is being tried for a serious crime,”
Rovner says.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) strengthened that
requirement, demanding that the criminal-justice system take
“appropriate steps” to make sure a disabled person can communicate as
effectively as anyone else. This might require “appropriate auxiliary
aids and services,” such as a setup akin to closed captioning or an
oral interpreter to facilitate lip reading.

In fact, criminal justice agencies “frequently do not honor the letter
and spirit of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act,” says Howard
Rosenblum, who heads the NAD. “The challenge has been to actually
litigate against every law enforcement agency, lawyer, court, and
prison that violate the requirements.” The Justice Department could
enforce the requirements, he adds, but to a large degree has failed to
do so. (The DOJ asked me to submit written questions for this story
but did not respond to them by press time.)

In 2003, Pat went back to the Florida courts with fresh evidence that
wasn’t subject to the time limit. Felix’s brother Frank, who was still
serving his time, had sent Felix a letter admitting that he and Ray
had done the killing and that “Felix Garcia was never at the scene of
the crime or had any participation.”

Frank was the star witness at an evidentiary hearing the court finally
granted more than three years later. Pat had collected affidavits from
five inmates who had known Frank in various prisons. All of them swore
that Frank had told them he’d blamed his little brother for the murder
because he was afraid he’d get the death penalty. Taking the stand,
Frank initially responded to most of the questions by invoking the
Fifth Amendment. Then, suddenly, he turned to the judge and asked:
“How much does perjury carry? Five years? I’ll do that. Felix Garcia
did not have nothing to do with that murder case.It was me and Raymond
Stanley that did it. I’ll take the five years.”

Felix’s attorney, Dick Watts, kept interrogating Frank:

Q. Felix’s ID was used for a pawn, is that right?

A. Yes. I gave him the jewelry.

Q. Did he know where the jewelry came from?

A. No, he did not.

Q. Why did you give it to Felix?

A. I didn’t have ID.

Q. So, Felix got hooked into this by—by that incident?

A. That incident, yes.

Q. And you are saying today that he was not involved in the planning,
wasn’t there, didn’t participate in any way?

A. He had nothing to do with it.

Q. It was you and who else?

A. And Raymond Stanley…

“I told him, ‘Felix, I am sticking with you till the very end. I will
be that mother you don’t have, that sister you don’t have.'”
Nearly a year later, the judge denied Felix’s motion for retrial or
release, saying he couldn’t tell what was true and what was a lie. Pat
was devastated. “We were in court 10 months with depositions, and we
were denied,” she recalls as we sit on her living room sofa in the
late afternoon sun. “He sat there in that jury box,” she says. Then
she begins to cry. “He was shackled. And he mouthed to me, ‘Why? I am
innocent.'”

Pat remembers turning to Watts as they sat in the courtroom that day.
“‘He has no family. They don’t want anything to do with Felix. He had
nobody here during all our times in court,’ I said. ‘That young man is
going to be my son until this is over with. And I’ll be his mom if he
wants that.’

“So,” Pat continues, “I went to the jail after that and I told him,
‘Felix, I am sticking with you till the very end. I will be that
mother you don’t have, that sister you don’t have. I will not let you
alone without somebody on the outside caring for you.’ And we both
cried together. And he called me Mom. And he’s called me Mom ever
since. He calls me Pat when it’s legal; he calls me Mom when it’s
personal. I will see this young man to the very end, till he walks out
that courtroom door a free man.”

Pat Bliss and Felix at Polk, June 5, 2010 Courtesy Pat Bliss. Until
that day, Felix, like other inmates with serious disabilities, will
face what David Fathi, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s
National Prison Project, calls “a nightmare of vulnerability, abuse,
and exclusion from the most basic prison programs and services. I
think prisoners who are deaf or blind are often the worst off of all.”

Numbers are hard to come by, since prison authorities often don’t
bother to count deaf inmates. But when Katrina Miller, a former
corrections official turned assistant professor at the University of
Arkansas, looked at Texas prisons a decade ago, she found that a full
30 percent of inmates were hard of hearing—defined as having a 50
percent hearing loss in one ear.

Under the ADA, hard-of-hearing inmates are supposed to be provided
with the same “auxiliary aids and services” in prison as in court. But
prisons “have routinely ignored” the legal requirements, says the
NAD’s Howard Rosenblum. “Deaf and hard-of-hearing prisoners are unable
to understand instructions of guards, to take classes that make them
eligible for early release, to learn skills, to know when meals are
announced, to know when visitors are here to see them, to watch
television, to use the telephone, to express grievances, to
communicate with counselors or doctors, and to defend against claims
of misconduct.”

Jack Cowley, a former prison warden in Oklahoma who now serves on the
advisory board of the National Institute of Corrections, says there
can be wide gaps between policy and practice. “While most directors of
corrections, and perhaps even wardens would say, ‘Oh yes, we make
accommodation’…there is still this sort of deliberate indifference
when it comes to back in the cellblocks,” Cowley told me. “Most state
facilities are aware of deaf inmates and try to house them together
and they look out for one another, and hopefully some staff member
will find some compassion and look after them.” But “there’s not a lot
of sympathy in the halls.”

In theory, Felix could file a federal civil rights lawsuit—but there
he would run into the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a Clinton-era law
that makes it extraordinarily difficult for prisoners to bring a case
in the federal courts. Class-action suits in New York and Virginia
have somewhat improved services for deaf prisoners in those states,
and similar suits have been filed against the Illinois corrections
department and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Earlier this year, two
attorneys sued the Florida Department of Corrections seeking to win
deaf inmates access to a device that would enable them to watch TV or
listen to the radio. But their class-action suit was dismissed after
corrections officials argued that the tiny gadget could be used to
hide contraband. In any case, the officials claimed, the state housed
too few deaf inmates to justify a class action. How few? In a
deposition, the department’s ADA-compliance official admitted she had
no idea. (In December, a DOC spokeswoman told me Florida has 74
inmates receiving services related to a hearing impairment.)

Felix may not have much going for him, but at least he has Pat. She
gets on the phone with prison classification officers—who dole out
stints in solitary confinement and other punishments—explaining that
Felix is not being unruly when he doesn’t answer a guard. If he has a
medical problem, she talks to the prison doctors. She saves up to
visit Felix in person once a year. They used to speak on the phone
weekly, until the TTY calls became collect, a luxury Pat couldn’t
afford. Now they correspond by mail. Sometimes Felix’s letters don’t
arrive. He says the guards tear them up.

“Hi Felix,” I say, before reminding myself aloud, “Oh, right, he can’t
hear me.” “Oh, Garcia?” says the warden. “He can hear.”
With Pat’s guidance, I eventually receive permission to interview
Felix face to face. After driving all the way down from Virginia, Pat
picks me up in her red Nissan Xterra at the Jacksonville airport. The
Jefferson Correctional Institute is about two hours due west; the
final approach takes us through farmland and down a narrow tree-lined
road. The prison itself consists of an innocuous-looking group of low,
sand-colored buildings with dark, slanted roofs. A friendly
classification officer leads us through the grounds and into a
building where an assistant warden welcomes us and clears out his
office for our interview. Leaning against the wall about 10 feet off,
facing away from us, is a tall man with short salt-and-pepper hair. I
automatically call out, “Hi Felix,” before reminding myself aloud,
“Oh, right, he can’t hear me.”

“Oh, Garcia?” says the warden. “He can hear.”

In fact, the prison’s medical staff has deemed Felix profoundly deaf,
with hearing loss exceeding 90 decibels. This means he can hear, in
some muffled fashion, the sound of a car horn, a motorcycle, or a jet
taking off, but not human voices. Felix says his prison-issued hearing
aid doesn’t make speech more understandable; it merely amplifies the
din, allowing him to hear cell doors clanging shut and alarms going
off. But because he can read lips a little bit, and because he tries
hard to understand and accommodate, the prison’s nonmedical staff has
the impression that he hears more than he lets on. “I am being
assaulted by a certain officer,” he’d written to Pat. “He will not let
me sleep. He will not let me rest kicking on my door and today he
pushed me down and spit on me trying to get me to say something.”

As I record Felix with my little Flip camera, guards pace the corridor
outside. Felix speaks and signs simultaneously, and Pat—who knows
only rudimentary sign language, but is used to Felix—understands him
pretty well. He’s used to her, too, and can reads her lips
effectively, so she repeats my questions. Behind his round glasses,
Felix’s face is gaunt but expressive. His voice contains a note of
desperation.

After the rape, Felix told me, he spent hours crouching in terror
against his cell door, listening for potential assailants.
He explains that his situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past
year. He was removed from Polk, where he had a small community of deaf
acquaintances, and sent to a series of other prisons before landing
here. Shortly before the move, he’d seen Candise, now 30, for the
first time since she was three months old; his daughter lives in
Florida, but too far away to visit regularly. None of the prisoners
around him is hearing impaired and he hasn’t been getting access to
sign-language interpreters. He lives in fear of offending fellow
prisoners by misunderstanding them or inadvertently ignoring their
questions, and then paying the price; indeed, shortly after arriving
at Jefferson, Felix got into a fight and was briefly thrown into
solitary confinement.

After we talk for a bit, I ask him about the rape. It happened about a
year ago, when two men assaulted Felix in a shower at the Florida
DOC’s Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. He reported it,
despite fears of retribution, and for weeks afterwards, he says, he
spent hours crouching in terror against his cell door, trying to
discern the noise of an approaching guard or assailant. Later, after
being transferred to the Madison Correctional Institution, Felix
attempted to hang himself with a bedsheet. Prison staff put him on
suicide watch, he says, leaving him naked in a bare, cold cell for six
days. (According to the DOC, inmates on suicide watch are clad in a
nonflammable, untearable “shroud.”)

Up until now, no one has written about Felix’s situation, and I worry
that Felix—Pat, too—are pinning too much hope on the power of the
press. But I also know that she, at least, understands what they are
up against. Beyond trying to improve Felix’s lot in prison, Pat told
me, there are few options. In his criminal case, every possible angle
is exhausted—unless someone with firsthand knowledge, besides Frank,
were to come forward with an account of the night of the murder.

Felix is eligible for parole in 2024, but his odds are abysmal. Not a
single lifer has been paroled in Florida since 1995.
In theory, Gov. Rick Scott could grant clemency, but Scott, a tea
party champion elected in 2010, has little inclination toward that
sort of move, and has in fact moved to make the clemency process more
arduous. Plus, to qualify for clemency, Felix would have to
acknowledge guilt, something he refuses to do. Short of that, he’ll be
eligible for parole in 2024, at age 63, but even then his odds are
abysmal. Last year, just 50 Florida prisoners were paroled—0.1
percent of the total released—and not a single lifer has been
released on parole since 1995. “While other states cut back because of
costs,” notes the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Steve Bright,
“Florida expands its prison population.”

In October, Felix was moved to the Tomoka Correctional Institution,
where there are other deaf inmates and some programs are available. He
is now a bit less isolated but only slightly less fearful. “Many, many
times, deaf people raped and beat and no help from the officers.
Hearing people steal our things,” Felix wrote in a letter MacKay
Vernon showed me. “When we try to talk to officers, they just laugh.
So hard for us. Many, many times I just want to die but have Jesus in
heart…Pray every day to help other deaf.”

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