People with Disabilities and the Prison System: New Report Promotes Reform

Many stories about the criminal justice system focus on race and poverty and not from the lens of people with disabilities. Approximately 750,000 people with disabilities are currently imprisoned or more than 30% of the prison population (500,000 with cognitive impairment, 250,000 with mobility problems and 140,000 people who are blind/vision loss). The majority of them are predominantly African-American, Hispanic, or new immigrants who face challenges already compounded by effects of racism, ableism and other forms of discrimination and whose disabilities were not appropriately addressed, diagnosed, or treated.

Addressing the Issue

RespectAbility issued a report emphasizing the importance of prison reform, especially for people with disabilities.

The report recommends reforms to:

  • reduce the school-to-prison pipeline for people with disabilities
  • enable incarcerated individuals with disabilities to receive the literacy and life skills they will need when they exit the justice system as well as have access to their human rights
  • help returning citizens become productive members of their communities

School-to-Prison Pipeline

A young person with a disability in addition to race, poverty, and other vulnerabilities may lack a correct disability diagnosis, IEPs or accommodations needed in school. This leads them to getting into trouble, suspended, dropping out of school, not graduating high school and getting into more trouble, and finally imprisoned. “Jails, city jails, county jails, state and federal prisons are not equipped to deal with this scenario. Most of it is not equipment. It’s actually training. It’s awareness.” Jennifer Laszlo Mizrah from RespectAbility informs.

Fixing a Broken System

Proposed legislation does not address these issues. Individuals who come out of prison may lack the skills to get a job, access to medication, and skills to reenter the community and end up back in prison. In fact, 600,000 people a year are released from prison, about three-quarters of them end up back in prison within five years.

Promoting literacy, training or other accommodations while they are still incarcerated, would set them up for greater success once reentering society. Offering access to healthcare and medications for individuals who come out of prison could prevent reincarceration.

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