NAPANOCH, N.Y. — In the basement of a 90-year-old maximum-security prison--once a dungeon where unruly inmates were punished--a pioneer program has been established for prisoners who are hard of hearing or partially blind.
Twenty-nine inmates at Eastern Correctional Facility are kept separated from the general population. Other prisoners are not allowed in the area, but the handicapped inmates may leave for work or visits.
Prison officials say that the special ward is the only one in the nation designed exclusively for the handicapped. Such inmates are usually kept in prison hospital wards or left in their cells.
The goal of the year-old program is to provide specialized training for those with sensory handicaps, many of whom have lived with their handicaps for years.
No One to Talk With
Before Patrick Fenton transferred to Eastern he spent six years in other state prisons, almost always in a regular cell. Fenton, who is deaf and serving 5 to 12 years for robbery, said through sign language that before arriving at Eastern he had no one to talk with because "no one knew sign language."
Mel Barr had a cornea transplant after he was sentenced to 6 to 12 years for robbery and is legally blind. A sharp blow to the head could leave him totally blind.
He likes the program too. "For something that just started, it's going to be good," he said.
"We haven't had any requests to leave the unit for other than reclassification problems," Fred Hirsch, the unit teacher, said.
No Others Known
Charlotte Nesbitt--director of national policy for the American Correctional Assn., which represents 15,000 corrections employees nationwide--said that she knows of no other state providing such a unit.
"We can at least say New York is certainly a leader in this," she said from the
group's headquarters in College Park, Md. "Corrections nationwide is becoming increasingly sensitive to offenders with special needs."
She said that was largely because "we have seen a number of lawsuits for corrections that are very, very expensive for the state because certain basic needs just weren't met."
Meeting needs at Eastern is the task of Phil Coombe Jr., 48, superintendent of the prison, which has 1,150 beds and 600 employees.
"We did this with mixed feelings," Coombe said. "We've got some guys down there who you are not going to want to have over to your living room tonight. These guys break our chops."
Coombe, who was named Superintendent of the Year in 1983 by the North American Assn. of Wardens and Superintendents, said he wants his prison known for inmates who are less likely to commit crimes when they leave.
Eastern has gained a reputation as a progressive and relatively safe state prison, said Robert Gangi, head of the watchdog Correctional Assn. of New York.
But that reputation cuts two ways, Coombe said.
"We have been accused by some of our staff of being too soft," he said. "There have been a couple of people who have misinterpreted what the unit is about. I don't think there is a soft touch down there."
Equipped for Handicapped
The prison's cinder block basement, once damp and dark, is now painted in pastels and equipped with many aids for the handicapped, from Braille typewriters and talking calculators to a soundproof room for easier listening.
It has a recreation area with a large-screen television, weights, a stationary bicycle and various games. There are two smaller rooms, one a classroom where several inmates study for their high school equivalency tests and the other a workshop where inmates make state dog license tags and other items.
The handicapped inmate's biggest fear, said program counselor Nelson Cintron, is that he could be assaulted before he realizes that he is in danger. No one may enter their section without special permission, Cintron said.
The inmates also must deal with potential dangers that others never consider, such as opening and closing cell doors safely, moving through corridors with ease, avoiding obstacles and responding quickly to guards' orders.
Inmate Teachers a Key
The dozen people in the program said a key to its success is the work of inmate teachers.
"It might be a biased opinion," said Victor Clark, head inmate teacher, "but this is the crux of the whole unit, this academic arena here."
Clark, 32, was convicted of murder and sentenced 12 years ago to 20 years to life. He says that it took him two tries to get his high school equivalency diploma before going on to get his college degree with straight A's and his master's degree in special education.
Purnell Jackson, 63, is finishing a four-year sentence for assault. He toiled in the unit's workshop etching signs and nameplates on brass for prison offices. "It gets a little frustrating at times," he said, "but you have to manufacture the patience to deal with it."
Darryl King, an inmate teacher serving 25 years to life for murder, said: "Hey, it's hard for a regular inmate to leave the facility, so you can imagine what it will be like for the handicapped to go back out."