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Prison reform, inmates with disabilities, covid-19, and safety for all13 min read

Prison reform, inmates with disabilities, covid-19, and safety for all

“Americans are punitive by nature. However, we are also compassionate, and equality is built into our foundation. So, it is not surprising that incarcerating certain groups of individuals has caused a heated debate about whether our practices are just, effective, and humane”.


Sadly, the United States is #1 when it comes to incarcerating our citizens. Plus, we incarcerate a much higher number of diverse people in our prisons including persons with disabilities, economically challenged individuals, and persons of color.  Sadly, this high rate of imprisonment of our population has chilling and negative long lasting impacts on individuals, families, and society.  Incarceration disproportionally impacts individuals and families that are economically challenged and living in poverty.   There are also financial losses and additional costs for expenses.  Examples include the cost of lawyers, food for the incarcerated individual, transportation costs, and other expenses. 

There are major losses of income due to incarceration that contributes to the ongoing cycle of poverty.  It can also contribute to the impoverishment of the prisoner’s family.  These losses continue even after the individual has been released.  Lack of prospects for employment, and they are subjected to socio-economic exclusion which can lead to endless cycles of poverty, marginalization, criminality and additional imprisonment.  There are a few States and some municipalities that have passed “Band the Box” laws that prohibit public and some private employers from inquiring about past incarcerations until after a job offer has been extended. However, there is no national law that protects citizens from this kind of discrimination. Additionally, many former inmates are barred from exercising their right to vote even after they have paid their debt to society. This leads to further marginalization and disenfranchisement. Different states have different regulations.

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”

–Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), speech on criminal justice at Columbia University, April 29, 2015 

Is it fair that people of color are disproportionately represented in U.S. jails and prisons? What should juvenile detention look like—and should we do everything we can to keep juvenile offenders out of correctional facilities? What about individuals with mental illness? Jail is hardly a place for them to get well.

But there is another group—one less vocal and more vulnerable—that has borne the brunt of inequality when it comes to incarceration… People with disabilities.

“Proposed criminal justice reforms have begun to address the disparate impact that our broken justice system has on racial and ethnic minorities. However, those same reforms need to consider the intersection and impact of disabilities.”

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Some 2.3 million men, women, and juveniles in the United States live behind bars, many of them are sitting ducks for a virus that thrives in cramped in confined spaces. COVID-19 has raged throughout U.S. jails and prisons, where people live together in close quarters and there is little opportunity for social distancing, a lack of basic sanitary supplies, and high rates of chronic disease.

The Marshall Project has been tracking how many people are being sickened and killed by COVID-19 in prisons and how widely it has spread across the country and within each state.

Fighting the prison Covid-19 crisis effectively requires having good data—but that effort is complicated by uneven information and reporting methods across states.

To get a fuller picture, POLITICO Magazine has compiled some of what we know about the coronavirus outbreak inside U.S. jails and prisons.

Alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders are necessary to reduce overcrowding, to constructively and appropriately sentence offenders, to minimize financial costs, and to protect offenders’ families from the upheaval.

The decision to place an offender in prison, and the decision to impose a particular length of sentence, are critical social policy decisions that should not be contaminated by profit considerations.  

Additionally, many former inmates are barred from exercising their right to vote even after they have paid their debt to society. This leads to further marginalization and disenfranchisement.  Different states have different requirements.

Encouraging rehabilitation and establishing productive instructional programing in a safe and secure facility for prisoners while protecting the surrounding community, should be the top priority of a prison.

The reality is that most prisons are overcrowded, often dangerous, provide sub-standard medical and mental health care, and do nothing to prepare prisoners for when they return to the free world.

National surveys indicate: 70% of inmates entering state prisons have not graduated from high school, 19% are completely illiterate, and 40% are functionally illiterate. Prison programs that seek to change these statistics make an important difference in the lives of prisoners and for the outside community.  According to the NAACP criminal justice factsheet,

“An African American male without a high school diploma or equivalent is more likely to be imprisoned than employed.”

According to the NAACP criminal justice factsheet.

Prisoners accorded the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills are better equipped to resist a life of crime once outside of prison and more likely to gain employment and become self-sufficient.

Voices unlocked- prisoners with disabilities

Incarceration in the U.S. disproportionately impacts people of color and people with disabilities. People with disabilities too often find an absence of justice in a system that ignores their needs.

The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) believes every American has the right to access our nation’s justice system.  The U.S. Census reports that 1 in 5 Americans (20 percent) have a disability, the Bureau of Justice found that 32 percent of federal prisoners and 40 percent of jail inmates report at least one.

The report points out the fact that people with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of crime than people without disabilities.

  • Prisoners were nearly 3 times more likely and jail inmates were more than 4 times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability.
  • About 2 in 10 prisoners and 3 in 10 jail inmates having a cognitive disability, the most reported disability in each population.
  • Female prisoners were more likely than male prisoners to report having a cognitive disability but were equally likely to report having each of the other five disabilities.
  • Non-Hispanic white prisoners (37%) and prisoners of two or more races (42%) were more likely than non-Hispanic black prisoners (26%) to report having at least one disability.
  • More than half of the prisoners (54%) and jail inmates (53%) with a disability or a co-occurring chronic condition.

The crushing impact of the criminal justice system’s failure is felt acutely in communities across the United States. Significant and growing research shows how certain populations—including communities of color; residents of high-poverty neighborhoods; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, individuals—have been particularly hard hit. But rarely discussed is the impact of the criminal justice system on Americans with disabilities.

Just like anyone else, people with disabilities meet the criminal justice system as suspects, defendants, incarcerated persons, victims, and/or witnesses.

People with disabilities are often left out of discussions relating to other marginalized groups. Ironically, every marginalized group has significant presence of people with disabilities within it. The needs of people with disabilities are simply not considered or valued.

People with disabilities are more likely to experience victimization, be arrested, be charged with a crime, and serve longer prison sentences once convicted, than those without disabilities. People with disabilities, Black and Brown Americans, and other marginalized identities are even more likely to get caught up in the system.  Once entangled, they face unique challenges, bias, and inaccessible services, which only perpetuates the cycle of criminal justice involvement.

They often face fear, prejudice, and a lack of understanding or resources when they do become entangled in the system. Justice professionals may lack experience and accurate knowledge about people with disabilities, leading to misidentification of disability, a heightened risk of false confessions, inaccurate assumptions about competency and credibility, inappropriate placement in institutions, and the unknowing waivers of rights.

People with disabilities are valuable, and they have the right to access justice. They should not experience discrimination or mistreatment in any justice system. They should also have meaningful access to criminal justice services and programs.

There seems to be a different America for people with disabilities. There is a different economic system. A different justice system. There are different societal expectations. There are laws that protect people with disabilities against being treated as less than. However, in many instances, the practical application of these laws is woefully inadequate. Which results in the further marginalization of an already marginalized people. You cannot legislate an attitude.

People with disabilities should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of criminal justice involvement or any other status or identity.

For decades, stories about criminal justice have focused on race and poverty alone. But this story misses the lens of what happens to people with disabilities whose parents or schools do not have the resources to ensure they have a correct disability diagnosis, IEPs, and accommodations.

The majority of people behind bars are functionally illiterate and did not complete high school, according to the above statistics. Many have repeatedly been victims of assault, sexual violence, bullying, and low expectations – experiences that often correlate with later committing crimes.

In addition to facing disproportionate rates of incarceration, people with disabilities are also especially likely to be the victims of police violence.  Countless more have suffered brutality and violent treatment at the hands of police, often stemming from misunderstandings related to mental health conditions and other disabilities. Furthermore, the number of individuals who have acquired disabilities while in police custody is unknown.

Once individuals with a disability are in the system, they face significant problems including access to counsel, a lack of accommodations, complex rules, systematic abuse, and solitary confinement. Many are abused behind bars. Criminal justice issues are issues that dramatically impact people with disabilities.

RespectAbility, a nonprofit disability organization, estimates that more than 750,000 people with disabilities are behind bars in America today.  This includes 140,000 who are blind or have vision loss, approximately the same number who are deaf or have significant hearing loss, and more than 200,000 who have mobility issues. The largest group, which includes more than half a million people, have cognitive impairments. Some have multiple disabilities.

While behind bars, people with disabilities are often deprived of necessary medical care, as well as needed support, services, and accommodations. This is despite long-standing federal disability rights laws that mandate equal access to programs, services, and activities for all people with disabilities in custody. Poor conditions in jails and prisons and inadequate access to health care and mental health treatment can not only exacerbate existing conditions but, also lead to further physical and mental health problems that individuals did not have prior to incarceration. Many inmates with disabilities are held in solitary confinement—reportedly, in many cases, for their own protection, due to a lack of appropriate alternative accommodations.

Figure 4 Inmate Using Wheelchair Source: American Progress

Moreover, while many people with disabilities already face barriers to employment, stable housing, and other necessary elements of economic security, adding a criminal record into the mix can pose additional obstacles that make living with a disability an even greater challenge.

Meanwhile, reentry programs for formerly incarcerated individuals often lack necessary accommodations and connections to community services, making them incapable of meeting the needs of participants with disabilities.

The need to promote prison reform.

Central to the arguments to promote prison reform is a human rights argument. The detrimental impact of imprisonment on individuals, families, and communities, as well as economic factors, also need to be considered when discussing the need for prison reform.

Promote safety, fairness, and justice for people with disabilities, especially those with hidden disabilities and marginalized identities, as victims, witnesses, suspects, defendants, and incarcerated persons.

People with disabilities often do not have access to justice because criminal justice professionals often lack the knowledge and experience to interact effectively with these individuals. Without access to justice, individuals with disabilities will continue to be overrepresented in every part of the criminal justice system.

To address this critical issue, the Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD) has created Pathways to Justice, a comprehensive, community-based program that improves access to justice by creating and building relationships between the criminal justice and disability communities. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is undertaking sweeping reforms designed to reduce recidivism and strengthen public safety. 

Accordingly, we suggest some recommendations to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to justice and safety by considering the following points:

  • Advocate with and for people with disabilities, especially those with other marginalized identities, facing criminal justice involvement, by providing information and referral services.
  • Increase training, knowledge, and awareness of criminal justice professionals about people with disabilities, including their legal obligations toward the disability community.
  • Ensure people with disabilities are leading the charge on all policy and related efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
  • Support effective research and evaluation to promote innovative best practices, including the collection and publication of key resources for the field.
  • Emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment programs through support, educational, and vocational training.
  • Prisoners with disabilities should be identified so the facility can provide reasonable ADA accommodations.
  • Disabled inmates should be provided reading and writing assistance and assistance in disciplinary, administrative, and classification proceedings. The goal should be that staff members’ communications with disabled inmates are as effective as their communications with non-disabled inmates.
  • Grievance procedures should be readily available to all inmates, and staff should make appropriate provisions to communicate those procedures to the disabled inmates.
  • Facilities should provide developmentally disabled inmates with assistance with self-care and daily living activities such as bathing, changing clothes, keeping their living areas orderly, and eating.
  • Facilities should make reasonable accommodations to ensure inmates with disabilities understand what they must do to avoid being re-incarcerated.
  • Provide better reading services for prisoners. For example, those with dyslexia, including audio technology to assist them with schoolwork.

Final Words.

Throughout history, societal attitudes toward incarceration and its purpose have evolved dramatically. Priority must be given to rehabilitation and reintroduction to society in all but the most extreme crimes.

The statistics correlating disability and incarceration are startling. If our primary objectives are to rehabilitate and reintroduce people into society, we must begin with inclusive prison reform. If the needs of people with disabilities are not thoroughly included in any prison reform initiative, then It is not reform.

It is vital for us as a society to identify the many ways that the lack of support and understanding around disability intensifies the risk for both crime and negative interactions with the criminal justice system.

We must consider the ethical and economic costs of incarcerating persons with disabilities. The focus is on how to create a fairer system that provides appropriate treatment, protection from victimization, and equal opportunities for rehabilitation.

Prisons are not isolated from society and prison health is public health. Most people in prison eventually return to the wider society.  A sentence of imprisonment constitutes only a deprivation of the basic right to liberty.  It does not entail the restriction of other human rights, except for those which are naturally restricted by the very fact of being in prison.

Prison reform is necessary to ensure that this principle is respected, the human rights of prisoners protected, and their prospects for social reintegration increased, in compliance with international standards and norms relevant to human rights considerations.


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About the Authors

Debra Ruh

Debra Ruh

Chief Executive Officer

Debra Ruh is the CEO of Ruh Global IMPACT.  The UN President’s office invited Debra to address the United Nations General Assembly at the Conference of State Parties 9th session on May 13, 2016.  Selected as the North American representative for UN ILO Global Business and Disability Network (GBDN). US State Department global speaker and ambassador since 2018. Nominated as Global Goodwill Ambassador in 2018.  Author of three books, Inclusion Branding (available in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Voice via Audible), Tapping into Hidden Human Capital, and Finding Your Voice using Social Media.  Learn more at or

She is a global influencer, with over 300,000 followers on social media. Co-founder of award winning #AXSChat one of largest tweet chats in the world with over 8 billion tweets. Named in the “Top 5% of Social Media Influencers” and “Top 0.1% of people talking about Disability Inclusion and Accessibility” by KLOUT, #15 in Digital Scouts, and Top 100 Global Digital Influencers in Sept 2018.  Debra has been featured on CBS, ABC, NBC, Washington Post, INC, Entrepreneur, Forbes, Huffington Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, and more.

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