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Officials ignored deaf man's pleas
Left in jail for two years by "mistake"

by BRUCE COOLEY | September 14, 2001 | Page 2

WASHINGTON--Joseph Heard was delivered to jail here by U.S. Marshals on October 13, 1999. He spent nearly two years behind bars before authorities figured out that they'd made a mistake--the case against Heard had been dismissed, and he was supposed to be set free, not jailed.

Heard, who is deaf and can't speak, saw no family, friends or lawyers during his two years of imprisonment in a solitary cell in the jail's mental health unit. Guards and prison staff ignored the notes that he routinely passed to them, containing a simple message: "Innocent."

"They ignored my notes," Heard told reporters through an interpreter. "They just crumpled them up or threw them away, many times. I just tried to stay strong. I wanted out. I needed to get out."

"We knew from Day One that his case had been dismissed," admitted the director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Why didn't anyone catch the mistake?

In one of the cruelest twists in this nightmare, Heard was diagnosed at the jail with paranoid schizophrenia. He was put on medication and delivered to the facility's mental health unit, where staff didn't have access to his legal case file showing that he had been ordered released. And because of a computer error, jail officials thought he was someone else.

The mistake was only discovered when the jail reviewed records of medical unit inmates in preparation for transferring them to federal prisons. "Luckily, it was only two years," one of Heard's brothers told reporters. "It could have been five or 10. They took his freedom. That's enough to drive anyone insane."

"Mistakes" like these show the cruel inhumanity of a prison machine filled to the bursting point by the victims of the politicians' war on the poor.

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