More than 750,000 people in our prison system have a disability, reports RespectAbility, a group that advocates for those with disabilities.
Of those, more than half a million have some sort of cognitive impairment; at least 250,000 have mobility issues; and 140,000 have some kind of vision loss.
When speaking with PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, said that those with disabilities account for around 30 percent of the prison population, while those with disabilities only account for about 19 percent of the general population.
Why the discrepancy?
According to the report, children with disabilities are more likely than their peers to end up in prison, due partly to the lack of support systems.
“It really happens when young people who have dyslexia or executive function disorder don’t get the diagnosis, don’t get the accommodations that they need and deserve in school,” explains Mizrahi. “They wind up getting in trouble, getting suspended, dropping out of school. They’re not graduating high school and they’re getting in trouble very early.”
The report says that 61 percent of youth with disabilities graduate from high school, compared to 81 percent of youth without disabilities. And not graduating from high school can often be a factor that leads to crime, or at least it could be a related dynamic for the two-thirds of state prisoners who never graduated.
Beyond getting into trouble with the law, the problem continues for those with disabilities once they’ve entered the system. Often, Mizrahi comments, those with cognitive impairments don’t understand the charges being brought against them. Or those with hearing impairments don’t receive adequate translation (sign language or otherwise) when being prosecuted, and so are unable to adequately defend themselves.
Once in prison, cognitive or hearing impairments make it more difficult for these individuals to follow instructions, often landing them in solitary confinement, further adding to their mental instability.
In order to prevent this unhealthy and unjust chain of events, Mizrahi says that early intervention is key, particularly for those with disabilities coming from minority or disadvantaged populations. At the sentencing level, alternatives such as mental health treatment programs or work programs might better suit those with disabilities. And finally, providing a compassionate and appropriate safety net for those leaving prison.
“In terms of thinking about when people reenter the community, you need to be ready to have scaffolding for success, so that people can get a job, so that they can get their medication. People with significant mental health differences who need to have medication to keep from having psychotic episodes leave incarceration with no healthcare or no medicine and it’s not surprising that they’re doing something that’s putting them back in jail.”