For the past five decades, America has fallen in love with the idea of mass incarceration. The prison population in this country has skyrocketed since the beginning of the drug war, and one of the main reasons the numbers have gone down recently is because of COVID-19.
We lock up a greater share of our citizens than any other developed nation on Earth, and we spend more than $80 billion annually to do it. When people are behind bars, they aren’t prepared for their eventual release, and that has led to a recidivism rate of more than 60 percent.
America’s criminal justice system has impacted every community across the country, and those hit particularly hard include communities of color, residents in high-poverty neighborhoods, and members of the LGBTQ community.
What is not often recognized is the impact of our failed criminal justice system on Americans with disabilities. All of this leads me to today’s blog topic: Can a disabled person go to jail?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
As the prison population has continued to rise over the past fifty years, a number of state mental hospitals and other institutional facilities that serve people with disabilities have closed. This shift is commonly referred to as “deinstitutionalization,” and it has resulted in the number of Americans in these kinds of facilities dropping from approximately 560,000 in 1955 to about 70,000 in 1994.
While this drop might appear to be a good thing, the closing of these facilities was not accompanied by the investment needed to make alternatives available, especially for those who suffer from mental health conditions.
According to the Center for American Progress, the result has been that people with disabilities are no longer living together in large numbers inside an institution, and they are instead being swept up into the criminal justice system. Oftentimes, it can be for an infraction as small as sleeping on a sidewalk.
The population of individuals with mental health conditions inside of America’s prisons and jails is three times higher that those in state mental hospitals.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people in prison are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as those in the free world, while those in jails are more than four times as likely.
Cognitive disabilities—such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and learning disorders—are among the most commonly reported. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, one in five prison inmates has a serious mental illness.
In addition to those with mental health issues, there are also inmates in jail who are confined to a wheelchair. Many with terminal illnesses or chronic diseases are placed in a prison hospital where they have better access to medical care compared to a regular prison.
Inmates who are in wheelchairs don’t get any kind of special treatment. However, at the prison I was in, a person in a wheelchair was assigned a “pusher,” which was an inmate who had the job of pushing the inmate in the wheelchair to their medical appointments, the chow hall, and anyplace they needed to go.
I can’t speak to whether or not all facilities are ADA compliant (I will assume they are not). But, I do know that inmates in wheelchairs are assigned a bottom bunk, and they have access to special restroom and shower facilities.
Inmates who can’t take care of themselves get assistance from staff when it comes to things like taking showers, getting dressed, receiving medication, visiting the commissary, and utilizing the library.
According to the ACLU, recent court cases have “brought to light the serious violations of the rights of prisoners with physical disabilities. In March 2015, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Southern California, agreeing to provide mobility devices and physical therapy for prisoners with mobility disabilities after horrifying incidents of neglect and abuse.”
Neglect is only part of the story. Prisoners with physical disabilities are also at constant risk for placement in solitary confinement because of logistics, not for punishment.
As I mentioned earlier, someone who is mentally handicapped can go to jail. And, it is becoming more and more common for those with mental issues to end up behind bars than in a hospital where they can receive treatment.
In a 1999 study for the California Policy Research Center, Professor Joan Petersilia concluded, “If a culture is measured by how it treats its weakest members, then the handling of people with cognitive disabilities in our criminal justice system reveals American justice at its basest.”
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report also revealed that 30% of jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability. That’s quite a huge jump compared to the general public, where less than 5% of people self-report a cognitive disability.
One of the theories as to why those with cognitive disabilities are getting locked up at a higher rate is that people with low IQ and other developmental disabilities can engender suspicion because they lack the necessary social cues that other adults understand. This can result in inappropriate responses from law enforcement.
Do you think disabled people should be incarcerated? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Disabled Behind Bars https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/criminal-justice/reports/2016/07/18/141447/disabled-behind-bars/ Prisoners with disabilities are forgotten and neglected in America https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement/prisoners-physical-disabilities-are-forgotten-and Our Weakest Members: Developmentally Disabled People in the Criminal Justice System https://www.lexipol.com/resources/blog/developmentally-disabled-people-in-the-criminal-justice-system/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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