Priosons And The Reinstitutionalization of Disabled People

"At any given moment, 40 percent of all Americans with serious mental illness are estimated to be in jail or prison, comprising from 10 to 30 percent of all inmates"

Generally, there is a disproportionate number of disabled people in the prison population. In Canada, nearly 30% or women inmates and 17% of male inmates have Hepatitis C and almost 4% and 2%, respectively, are HIV positive. 30% of prisoners in the US have at least some hearing loss. In all, there is an unknown number of physically disabled and intellectually disabled people in prisons. Some estimates put the population of intellectually disabled people in prisons at as high as 9.5% and in the juvenile population learning disabilities are estimated at 55%.

There are 3 reasons why there are so many disabled people in prisons.

Poverty and Lack of Supports
Many disabled people live in poverty and make wages that are far lower than non-disabled people or scrape by on shamefully low social assistance rates. This coupled with the criminalization of a number of behaviours associated with "mental illness" means that many disabled people find themselves committing 'crimes' like steeling food, committing other acts of minor theft, loitering, trespassing, doing sex work and selling drugs, among other things, to make money.

Depending where people live, they could to jail for many, if not all of these 'offenses' and for some of them, they could be locked up for years.

Also, poverty means that once someone is arrested, they cannot afford a good lawyer so they have a publicly funded lawyer with a high caseload and very little time.

Ableism in the Judicial System

Lawyers are less likely to spend the amount of time that is actually needed to interview defendants with intellectual disabilities.

The courts have been found to have a tenancy to find that a defendant with an intellectual disability is competent to stand trial when the defendant isn't because the incompetence is seen as permanent. However, the opposite is true in the case for psychiatrized people because that is often seen to be temporary. But this means that there are intellectually disabled people who are on trial who do not understand what is going on and/or instruct their lawyers.

Further, many judges are known to be racist and sexist and it is fair to assume that there are many judges who are ableist and who actively discriminate against disabled defendants.

Ableism in the Prison Systems
When disabled people go to jail, they are punished twice: once for the crime they were convicted of and once for being disabled.

Stairs and physical access: this could make parts of the prison, which could include the yard, visiting areas, showers, medical facilities, programs, and, likely, half of the beds in the institution unavailable to many physically disabled inmates. Loss of access to these and other areas could make their time harder or compromise their health.

ASL and TTY: many programs are inaccessible and day-to-day functioning in prison very difficult due to lack of intrepreters. Further, deaf inmates can be cut-off from the outside world even more if prison telephones do not necessarily provide TTY or TDD services.

Personal support workers: attendant care is largely unavailable to disabled inmates who need it. Guards are left to do basic support tasks, which they aren't trained to do. Some inmates go without meals and are not allowed to use the toilet.

Other prisoners: Disabled prisoners may experience overt ableism. They also may have a difficult time defending themselves because of their disabilities.

Personal aid devices: mobility and assistive devices are often taken away from people when they are arrested (this includes prosthetics, canes, crutches, braces, etc.) and it can take a long time, and even a court hearing to get them back. Also if something breaks, it can be difficult or impossible to get it repaired or replaced.

Medical treatment: prisons in Canada and the United States are required to provide a basic level of medical care, but this is not always the case. In the Canadian federal prison system, 52% of it's health care facilities failed to be accredited in 2006 because they did not meet basic requirements. Procedural decisions - like choosing to make medication rounds 3 times a day (when many people need medications 4 times a day, delivering sleeping pills at 5pm or choosing not to test diabetic prisoners' insulin can have major, even deadly, impacts on people’s lives.

Medical wards: disabled inmates may also be isolated in medical wards or units specifically for the sick and disabled which can their access to programs and recreational facilities.

Segregation units: these are sometimes used to isolate people with allergies or people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who prison officials don't know how to deal with.

Maximum security: some people, in some areas, are automatically put in maximum security because of their disabilities. For instance, rather than run programs for people with intellectual disabilities at every security level, the system can save money by putting everyone with an intellectual disability into maximum security which means that there are people who would otherwise be at minimum security who are forced to be in maximum security.

All of these things work to inhibit disabled prisoners' ability to participate in programs. Prison programs could include high school or college courses, training programs, addiction recovery programs or anything else made available to inmates by administration or outside agencies. Prison programming can help pass the time inside, obtain parole and secure employment upon release.

If you do not participate in prison programming it is much harder to show the parole board that you can take on responsibility and that you deserve to be let out of prison.

Disabled people do harder time, get less out of their time and do more time.

So called deisntitutionalization was not about deinstitutionalization whatsoever, it was about moving people from more expensive and more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons. People left institutions which were designed like prisons to go to prisons which are increasingly looking like institutions because of who is ending up there.