‘He didn’t have a fighting chance’: Questions surround killing of deaf man in Baltimore jail

Published on: October 18, 2022 6:24 PM EDT|Updated on: October 19, 2022 9:48 AM EDT

Javarick Gantt, 34, sits on a stoop and poses for a photograph at an unknown location in Baltimore. Gantt was murdered by an unknown assailant at a state-run jail in the city earlier this month.

Javarick Gantt was in good spirits and counting on getting out of jail soon on the day before he was found killed inside the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center.

The 34-year-old, who was deaf and used sign language to communicate, appeared healthy, well-fed and happy, according to his friend Anthony Taylor, who said he was on a video call with Gantt less than 24 hours before he was killed. Officials from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the jail, have released few details about the killing, but Gantt’s mother said she was told her son was strangled to death.

For Taylor, it’s absurd that Gantt, who was arrested on a warrant for violating probation, was being held without bail at the facility in the first place. He had serious concerns about where Gantt was being housed inside the jail where he was killed. Not only was Gantt deaf, Taylor said, he stood at 5-foot-4 and weighed “no more than 120 pounds.”

“You’re supposed to be housed around the people who fit the criteria that you have,” said Taylor, who has himself done time at the jail. “You’re [people with disabilities are] not supposed to be housed around other people, and they’re not supposed to be in a cell.”

Gantt last worked at a convenience store in Baltimore City, where he stocked shelves, Taylor said. He wasn’t “out committing crimes.”

“He was a good kid, man,” Taylor said. “And Central Booking needs to be held accountable for what happened to him.”

Quinette Gantt, Javarick’s mother, described her son as a good person who got frustrated sometimes just like anyone else, but “it wasn’t to the extent like he was about to blow his top.”

“He’d get angry because he can’t hear, and it’s difficult for him, because he can’t talk,” she said.

The plight of incarcerated people who are deaf and hard of hearing is well documented by groups such as HEARD, a cross-disability abolitionist organization that has released fact sheets on the constitutional rights of deaf prisoners. Being deaf while incarcerated is sometimes referred to as being in a “prison within a prison” by disability rights advocates.

Kirsten Poston, the president of the Maryland Association of the Deaf, said the organization was “deeply saddened” to hear about Gantt’s killing, and raised questions about whether the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was running facilities that were compliant with federal law. She also raised questions about the department’s compliance with a recent court settlement outlining steps the agency would take to correct its past deficiencies by providing accommodations to people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

“We demand that there be an independent investigation into the matter as well as accountability and assurance that all individuals who require accessibility are granted them and are protected,” Poston said. “We offer our deepest condolences to the family of Javarick Gantt.”

The Maryland corrections department did not provide answers to several questions from The Baltimore Banner, including where Gantt was being housed inside the facility and whether his housing status was appropriate, given his disabilities. A spokesperson for the department said the agency’s “incarceration practices for people with disabilities were developed with ADA (American with Disabilities Act) guidance and oversight from a full-time” coordinator.

“Whether the deceased’s disability played any role in this case is part of both the criminal and administrative investigations being conducted now by DPSCS Intelligence and Investigative Division detectives,” the spokesperson said, citing an active investigation.

The agency disclosed Gantt’s death without naming him the morning it happened, saying only that he was “found unresponsive” at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, then pronounced dead by medical staff 20 minutes later. Over the weekend, the department named Gantt and said his death had been ruled a homicide, but did not identify him as deaf.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections said it would be investigating Gantt’s killing and would soon announce charges against an unnamed suspect in conjunction with the state’s attorney’s office.

Those who knew Gantt behind bars described him as good-natured and nonconfrontational, but faced with having to navigate a maze of obstacles just to function every day while incarcerated.

Though people with disabilities are supposed to receive certain accommodations, Gantt was treated more or less like everyone else, if not worse, according to one man who said he was housed in the same tier of Central Booking as Gantt for four days earlier this year.

“They don’t care about you, deaf or not, so it’s 10 times worse being deaf,” said the man, who asked not to be identified due to concerns about his safety.

Another individual, who worked with Gantt to help him navigate Baltimore’s court system, said Gantt used two interpreters: one skilled in American Sign Language and another certified deaf interpreter trained to pay attention to other visual cues, such as gestures and facial expressions.

That person, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak officially, said it would be very hard for Gantt to communicate his needs inside the jail.

“When deaf people go to jail, there’s nobody to talk to, nobody knows the language, and you end up extremely isolated,” they said.

Taylor, Gantt’s friend who has spent time in Central Booking, said that people with disabilities are supposed to be housed in areas with other people with disabilities, and was concerned his friend was being housed in a regular cell.

“If he’s in a cell, the odds are stacked against him,” Taylor said. “He can’t yell for a CO [corrections officer].”

Taylor said that the cells in Central Booking have microphones with buttons on them to notify guards in case of an emergency, but the microphones don’t work.

“He didn’t have a fighting chance,” Taylor said. “He didn’t have a bit of fight in him ... someone would be able to take advantage of him.”

Gantt had two active cases in the Maryland court system when he was killed, but it’s unclear from court records why he was being held without bail. Gantt was facing charges of assault and groping in one case, and minor assault in another, both from incidents dating back to 2019. He could have been held without bail because he had failed to appear before a probation officer, which is indicated in court records.

When Gantt was booked on a warrant in July, he was only able to provide an out-of-state address, influencing the decision to keep him jailed until his cases were resolved, according to a person familiar with his case who asked not to be identified. He had been held in the jail since July 1 until he was killed.