Disabilities Behind Bars

More than 750,000 people with diagnosed disabilities are currently imprisoned in the United States. Of those, 500,000 have cognitive impairments, 250,000 suffer from mobility problems, and 140,000 are visually challenged. Of those, many are people who did not have the resources or abilities to address their disabilities. While people with diagnosed with disabilities account for 20% of the overall population, more than 30% of people in prison in the United States have a disability.

In many cases, people with mental and physical disabilities are at a disadvantage socially, academically, and professionally. They may not receive the assistance they need to succeed in the early stages of their lives and, in some cases, may drop out of school and become involved in criminal activities from a relatively young age.

In other situations, some individuals with significant developmental disabilities may have a limited understanding of how their actions impact others or may be unable to control their actions as a result of their disability. In the past, those individuals would have previously been assigned to public mental institutions; however, those types of institutions were largely eliminated in the 1970s as a result of patient abuse, neglect, and poor conditions. Individuals with mental and developmental disabilities were shifted to community based care, where organizations like Abilities Services, Inc. provided support and services to individuals in their local communities. While this was a benefit and improvement for a vast majority of individuals, it resulted in a significant gap: for those individuals prone to violent outbursts who are a danger to themselves and others, there is no option between community care and prison.

Unfortunately, state and federal prisons are not prepared to provide accommodations for individuals with disabilities. There is very limited opportunity for disability training and awareness amongst law enforcement and prison staff.

Even upon being released from prison, those former prisoners with disabilities are highly likely to wind up back in prison due to the same lack of resources that may have led them there to begin with. Those that are released from prison struggle to find employment and access to healthcare, which may be necessary to provide medication and medical coverage for various impairments. With limited access to funds or employment, many will turn back to crime to provide for their needs, and they will once again be in a situation where they are unable to receive proper treatment and care.

While the situation is a bleak one, positive changes are on the way. Alternative sentencing options, such as mental health treatment programs and work programs, are on the rise. Congress has also begun to implement prison reform to limit sentences for nonviolent offenders, which will have a significantly positive impact on those nonviolent offenders with developmental and mental disabilities.

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What is a Disability?

The definition of a developmental disability includes, but is not limited to: an intellectual disability, autism, cerebral palsy, a severe head injury that occurred before the age of 22, or a severe seizure disorder.

 

Under federal law, "developmental disability" means a severe, chronic disability of an individual that:

 

  • attributable to a mental or physical impairment or combination of mental and physical impairments
  • manifests before the individual attains age 22
  • is likely to continue indefinitely
  • results in substantial functional limitations in three or more of the following areas of major life activity:
    • self care
    • receptive and expressive language
    • learning
    • reflects the individual's need for a combination and sequence of special, interdisciplinary, or generic services, individualized supports, or other forms of assistance that are of lifelong or extended duration and are individually planned and coordinated.
    • economic self-sufficiency; and
    • capacity for independent living
    • self-direction
    • mobility

 

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