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

October 2, 2017

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.

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.

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?
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18 Comments on "Incarceration: Opportunity or a Sign Language Interpreter’s Scarlet Letter?"

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Stephanie Feyne
Scott – Thank you for your eloquent and important discussion. It’s far more powerful than any comments I could make from my privileged vantage point. I think many of your comments could each be opened up for discussion among colleagues – the fact that the African American community is disproportionately incarcerated, the fact that people can communicate better with interpreters who understand the system and know how to represent it in ASL, and the fact that a community that works with an oppressed minority would do well to investigate its own assumptions and oppressive inclinations. the fact that our interpreting… Read more »
Angela Core

Scott, your story is very inspirational. As you said perhaps not the best place to be immersed in the
language and culture, but it served you well. I often find that if you take the first step and reach out to others they will embrace you. I agree that it is much easier to relate to someone who has shared similar experiences. You have much to teach others, so thank you for writing this article.

As one who has had deaf family incarcerated and fully understands the challenges this population deals with daily, I thank God for you and your courage to approach the deaf prisoners and the insight to understand their struggle. It is a population that is mostly ignored by the system and because of that they are cut off from the basic certainties that communication provides. You obviously have admirable integrity and strong character separate from whatever crime led you on this path to be interested enough to take on such a huge undertaking. This is an area that few are willing… Read more »

Thank you for this wonderful article.

Donna Leshne

If someone has done their time, and paid their debt to society; has the minimum skills and credentialing necessary to pass whatever version of the professional testing standards are out that year; go out into the world and provide a professional service in a professional manner – what are we really talking about?

Terry Druehl

There is a place for you. Keep up the good work.


I am one who fits into the category of an unconventional entry. I am a white female that entered into the profession after incarceration. I truly believe I hold myself to a high standard of ethics and approach. Thank you for writing this article! Best of wishes to you and your journey. I have been an interpreter for 8 years now. Released from prison in 2002. Started my ITP in 2006 and fell in Love with the language/community. I haven’t looked back! Thank you to this amazing community for welcoming me.


Thank you everyone for the encouragement and looking at this from a different perspective.

I love our community, I love the Deaf Community, and I look forward to many more years of working with awesome people like yourselves!

Unfortunately this is not a reality. I am in a similar situation, however I have been working for about 4 years, and not one person in the community has given me a second chance or a second glance. I started off with a lucrative career, I worked with a dozen agencies for several years, with clients repeatedly asking for me back. I am, for purposes of sharing that a lack of skill is not a part of this, a good interpreter. Eventually one interpreter got vindictive after they found out about my history, and decided to destroy my career. I… Read more »

THANK YOU for sharing. This is a perspective I have honestly never considered. The “how you discovered ASL” component of an interpreter is culturally important in the DHH community. I can imagine how it would be far easier for you to withhold bits of your story. I congratulate you on, as you put it here, “coming out” with it! What a beacon of hope you must be for clients who are incarcerated. Follow that calling and don’t let the naysayers bring you down! We are all here for a reason. 🙂

This is a wonderful and important topic to explore in so many ways. Locally, in NY State, there are a few prisons with Deaf populations, and the ongoing frustration is that many of the educational programs offered to the inmates are not accessible to the Deaf/HH/DB populations. There is one program – Alternatives to Violence – which would be so helpful to any inmate contemplating their lives after incarceration. Unfortunately the prisons have difficulty procuring the services of interpreters for these workshops. One obstacle is timing, as in planning far enough in advance to book someone. But even more difficult… Read more »
Devon Breeze
Scott, I can only imagine the backlash that you have received. Most peoples first question when they meet a new interpreter, Deaf or Interpreter, is “How did you get into this profession?” So most of the time you have told something personal about yourself before you have even gotten the opportunity to work and show your skills. But I think no matter the path you took to becoming an interpreter does not mean that the fight and passion for the community is any less. We are all working for joining in the fight for equality, inclusion, and …. acceptance. I… Read more »

I agree! Thank you so much for sharing. Far too many people in jail and too few that help.

Pamela Duncan
Often, people like to sit on their soapboxes and judge others, never giving anyone a true chance. I commend you in taking on what you saw as oppression and strived to work to provide something of an equal system to work within. I found your comments about your experiences while incarcerated as being eye-opening and almost of a calling for you to work to not only better your own life but to bring equality to those D/DB/HH around you. Many of us are called to this profession and we share a diverse background. We should RELISH these experiences because they… Read more »
Good on you Scott. I taught in jails in Sydney for 5 years and met Deaf ppl of course because they are overrepresented in jails. Then I was a prison ombudsman in Queensland for 3 years. We need heaps more people like you. It was good to hear that at least Deaf prisoners were together. In NZ, and probably Australia, they are isolated from each other. I have an idea. Why not get Deaf prisoners to teach hearing prisoners Sign Language in a more official educational setting within the jails? It would need appropriate support perhaps. BTW, you do know… Read more »

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