Sign Languages to Facilitate Communication in an Institutional Setting
October 19, 2010 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Recently corrections officials at a local prison turned down a proposal from the inmates for an ASL (American Sign Language) program, on the grounds that teaching inmates to communicate non-verbally was a security risk. This got me thinking: Wouldn't there already be non-verbal languages commonly used in prisons? Gang members, who are well-represented in prison populations, have systems of hang signals, would there be institutional variations? Have non-verbal communication systems been used in other institutional settings, like POW or concentration camps? Obviously, a universal cross-institutional language is unlikely, but any resources, web or book-based dealing with the topic of non-verbal communication in prisons or similar settings would be much appreciated.
posted by Alvy Ampersand to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: So far I've been able to find this post on a CO forum. While the Iowa post is neat, I'm looking for system of communication not sanctioned by the authorities.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:51 AM on October 19, 2010

I just saw an example of this last week on the Discovery Channel! I'll look for a reference to the program for you!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:24 PM on October 19, 2010

"A system of communication not sanctioned by the authorities" is technically called an anti-language.

An explanatory reference, and another.

Interestingly enough I couldn't find anything about signed anti-languages, and I've been trying for almost eighteen seconds. It's possible that I'm not using the right search terms.
posted by tel3path at 12:30 PM on October 19, 2010

The Knock Code, aka, The Tap Code, is one such example. It was used by US POWs in WWII and Viet Nam.
posted by mosk at 12:39 PM on October 19, 2010

I believe the show was Behind Bars and the episode was Season 1 Episode 2 featuring the Shelby County Jail. The prisoners were seperated into waiting areas, essentially large plexiglass pens and were shooting sign language back and forth in full sight of a corrections officer. Narration, if I recall correctly, stated that it was a modified form of ASL.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:45 PM on October 19, 2010

A little more info on the Knock Code: although non-verbal, the Knock Code is not technically a sign language. I don't know if this technicality makes it fall outside the scope of the answers you were looking for. I first read of it in Admiral James Stockdale's autobiography, In Love and War (which is excellent, BTW). The Knock Code is central to his story, and explains how the prisoners, who were highly segregated and endured hellish treatment, were able to keep spirits up and remain united.
posted by mosk at 12:53 PM on October 19, 2010

Gang members, who are well-represented in prison populations, have systems of hang signals, would there be institutional variations?

I worked in Camden, NJ for a few months once. Every day I'd walk past the state prison. And every day there would be one or two individuals signing to inmates in the building.

They were definitely not standardized. Different people (presumably from different gangs) used different signals.
posted by Netzapper at 1:20 PM on October 19, 2010

Have you ever seen the movie "The Great Escape"? About the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III during WWII?

The movie isn't totally accurate historically, but the details of the escape as presented are accurate. In real life, originally both Americans and Commonwealth prisoners were kept in the same prison camp, but eventually there were too many, and a second camp was created nearby (like a couple of hundred yards away) and all the Americans were moved into it.

The area between them was clear so there was clear line-of-sight. The prisoners in the two camps communicated with each other using flag semaphores.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:36 PM on October 19, 2010

Are you interested in signed language in prisons in general as well? Because I know a couple of people who work in the Deaf community in the US Midwest, and ASL access is considered a human rights issue--Deaf prisoners in the US are often essentially placed in solitary confinement. I know they have some good resources, but that may be tangential to what you're looking for, and it'd also be US-specific.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 2:59 PM on October 19, 2010

Response by poster: It could be useful, Uniformitarianism Now! Even if it isn't directly applicable, I was wondering about incarceration practices for people who are deaf.

Thanks for the responses thus far, everyone!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:10 PM on October 19, 2010

I volunteered for Books to Prisoners a couple years ago. The most requested books BY FAR were books about communicating without speaking. Most prisoners wrote that they were quickly loosing their hearing and they'd like to be able to communicate with loved ones even when their hearing is gone. So, yeah. Can't blame them for trying.

Since we didn't have books teaching sign language, we would give them whatever related reading material we had. Usually it would be a book about Helen Keller which I'm sure was NOT what they had in mind.
posted by smirkyfodder at 12:38 PM on October 20, 2010

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