US prisons hold more than 550,000 people with intellectual disabilities – they face exploitation, harsh treatment

US prisons hold more than 550,000 people with intellectual disabilities – they face exploitation, harsh treatment

The rate of intellectual disabilities is disproportionately high among incarcerated populations. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Jennifer Sarrett, Emory University

Prison life in the U.S. is tough. But when you have an intellectual, developmental or cognitive disability – as hundreds of thousands of Americans behind bars do – it can make you especially vulnerable.

In March, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the federal agency tasked with gathering data on crime and the criminal justice system, published a report that found roughly two in five – 38% – of the 24,848 incarcerated people they surveyed across 364 prisons reported a disability of some sort. Across the entire incarcerated population, that translates to some 760,000 people with disabilities living behind bars.

Around a quarter of those surveyed reported having a cognitive disability, such as difficulty remembering or making decisions. A similar proportion reported at some point being told they had attention deficit disorder, and 14% were told they had a learning disability.

As a scholar who has researched disability in prison and conducted in-depth interviews with several adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system, I’m all too aware of the problems that incarcerated people with disabilities face. Prisoners with these disabilities are at greater risk of serving longer, harder sentences and being exploited and abused by prison staff or other incarcerated people.

Stigma and crimes of survival

The rate of both physical and intellectual disability among the prison population is disproportionately high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of Americans report any kind of disability. Of those, 10.8% reported a cognitive disability.

This is less than half of the proportion of those in prisons. And rates appear to be on the rise – in 2011-2012, 32% of people incarcerated in prisons reported a disability, with 19% stating a cognitive disability.

High as they are, these rates are likely to be an underestimate. They are based on self-reports, and research has shown many people fail to report a disability – particularly an intellectual or cognitive disability – to avoid stigma or because they simply don’t know they have one.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has also found that people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities are more prevalent in jails – where people are sent immediately after arrest, to await trial or to serve a sentence of one year or less – than prisons. Jails tend to be associated with what have been called “crimes of survival,” such as shoplifting and loitering. These offenses are linked to unemployed people and people experiencing homelessness – communities in which rates of disabilities are higher.

As a result, a disproportionate amount of people with disabilities enter America’s criminal justice system. I see this in my research on intellectual and developmental disabilities – diagnoses like autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, and general cognitive impairment are common in our criminal justice system.

In jail, no one listens

Between 2018 and 2019, I interviewed 27 people with these disabilities about their interaction with the criminal justice system. Eighteen reported having been arrested and/or incarcerated.

Many spoke of the harm and difficulties they face throughout the criminal justice system, from courts to being behind bars.

One man I interviewed who had various learning and attention-related disabilities and was in special education as a child told me: “I was in jail one time [because] when I didn’t understand the questions the judge was asking me, and she sentence me to three months in [county jail] because I didn’t understand.” Officially, this was for disorderly conduct.

Confusion in prison and jail can lead to violence or danger. Needing time to process instructions, particularly in high-stress situations, can be interpreted as obstinacy by staff and officers in charge. One middle-aged man who experienced incarceration on a few occasions told me that if you can’t process instructions, sometimes you are physically forced to comply. He provided the example of seeing someone with mental health needs not going to the shower when requested: “In jail, they don’t have time for that. They’ll just throw you in the shower. They’re not supposed to, but I’ve seen that before.”

Further, being seen as obstinate can lead to disciplinary reports in prison or jail, which could result in added time to someone’s sentence or the removal of certain privileges. It could also result in solitary confinement – something known to exacerbate and create mental health concerns and which has been labeled as torture by the United Nations and human rights groups. One study from 2018 found that over 4,000 people with serious mental health concerns were being held in solitary confinement in the U.S. Again, this is likely to be an underestimate.

Incarcerated people with intellectual, developmental and cognitive disabilities risk being exploited by both officers and fellow inmates. One person I interviewed who had experienced incarceration said officers look for those who have a disability by noting who only watches TV and never reads, marking them for exploitation. He went on to say that “some of the corrections officers, they be doing things they ain’t got no business doing. So they’ll slide up onto the disability boy and use him, you know, because he’d making him feel like ‘This is my dog. This is my boy right here. Come and do this for me.’ And they’ll run and do it. So I think people with disabilities are used more by deceptive corrections guards than people that read.”

Rates of these disabilities are even higher among incarcerated women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. This might be related to the fact that women have much higher histories of abuse and trauma, or because they are more willing to report these disabilities.

One woman with cerebral palsy and unidentified intellectual disabilities I spoke with said that in most jails she’d report her disability, but no one would listen to her.

Hidden behind bars

The disproportionate rates of cognitive, intellectual and developmental disability in U.S. prisons and jails have rarely formed part of the conversation on reforming our police and prison system. When discussing mental health in prison, often the focus is on psychiatric disabilities, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There is good reason for this – people with these kinds of disabilities are also at high risk for incarceration.

But, I believe, it has meant that the needs of incarcerated people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been neglected. At present, there is little support for people with these disabilities in incarcerated settings. Prisons and jails could ensure staff are better trained to interact with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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We could also explore strategies to divert people with intellectual, learning and cognitive disabilities away from the criminal justice system. Cities are increasingly exploring alternatives to police for responding to mental health crises, like the CAHOOTS model in Oregon in which a medic and mental health expert are deployed as first responders. Additionally, there could be more attention to these disabilities in mental health courts, which combine court supervision with community-based services. They have been shown to be somewhat effective at reducing recidivism, but which seem to focus on people with schizophrenia, bipolar, major depression or PTSD.

But before that, awareness about the presence of disability in incarcerated settings needs to be higher. The plight of incarcerated prisoners with intellectual disabilities has long been an issue lost amid America’s sprawling prison network.The Conversation

Jennifer Sarrett, Lecturer, Center for Study of Human Health, Emory University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

10 Two-minute Podcast Shorts on Justice

10 Two-minute Podcast Shorts on Justice

Two-minute Daily Direction podcasts by UMI Founder Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., will get you thinking about the intersection of Christianity, social justice, and the role of the church.

A court of justice looks for eye witness testimony
Elijah Lovejoy left the pulpit to work for peace and justice
Radicals burn churches hoping to impede justice
The Leadership Conference sees disparities in justice
Rosa Parks protested injustice with non-violence
Chuck Colson advocated for restorative justice
Peaceful protest against injustice shows wisdom
Andrew Young has been a champion for justice
Dr. King stressed nonviolence to fight injustice
Dr. Carl Henry left a good word about social justice

Prison Fellowship joins campaign to reform cocaine sentencing guidelines

Prison Fellowship joins campaign to reform cocaine sentencing guidelines

Prison Fellowship has joined forces with criminal justice and prosecutorial organizations to support bipartisan efforts to reduce disparities in sentences that punish Black Americans more harshly than white Americans.

The #EndtheDisparity campaign, a partnership with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has recently focused on the 18-1 ratio in federal sentencing for distributing crack cocaine versus the drug in powdered form. Advocates are pushing for a 1-1 ratio instead.

“We think this is so important an issue and that action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice,” said Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman at an online roundtable with journalists on Tuesday (March 9).

After reading from the biblical Book of Proverbs that “The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight,” Ackerman said the disparities in cocaine sentencing are unfair to all Americans but especially to African Americans.

RELATED: Evangelical leaders push for criminal justice reform

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders in 2019 were Black, when African Americans comprise a much lower percentage of the U.S. population.

“Think about it: the African American community represents 13.4% of the citizenry of America but 81% of the people convicted for crack cocaine distribution in 2019 alone were African American,” said Ackerman, leader of the 45-year-old evangelical prison ministry founded by former prisoner and Nixon aide Chuck Colson.

“That’s not right and this has existed too long.”

The campaign comes at a time when legislation is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would end the sentencing disparities.

In January, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the EQUAL Act, whose acronym stands for “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.”

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb — introduced the House version of the bill.

Previously, Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity from 100-to-1, when someone sentenced for distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same amount of time — five years in prison — as someone who was apprehended for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine.

William Curtis, who was sentenced when the 100-to-1 disparity was in force, told reporters during the online roundtable discussion that he saw the differences in treatment while he was in prison for 20 years and six months for selling $20 and $50 rocks of cocaine.

“I sat in prison many a day and saw people sentenced under powder — white people sentenced under powder — get out of prison, go home, turn around and come back for doing the same thing and then they would get out of prison again, go home, turn around and come back and I’m still here,” he recalled.

Curtis, a Black man, is now continuing the rest of his 327-month sentence under home confinement in Tennessee due to COVID-19 precautions.

FAMM President Kevin Ring said the “political compromise” attained previously to reduce the disparity to 18-to-1 needs to be followed by a complete elimination of the difference in sentencing for distribution of two different forms of the drug.

“The crack powder disparity is the most obnoxious of the discriminatory aspects in our federal justice system,” he said. “Now it is time to finish the job and we think this is a matter of criminal justice and racial justice at a time where our country needs both.”

Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization, noted that more than 40 states already have laws with 1-1 ratios for punishments related to powder and crack cocaine.

Ring and roundtable participant Frank Russo, director of government and legislative affairs of the National District Attorneys Association, called the disparity a “moral issue” that needs to be addressed.

Russo said his association of local and state prosecutors endorses “common-sense reforms such as the EQUAL Act to improve our nation’s justice system and ensure that we are applying justice equitably.”

A Closer Look at the Families of Mass Incarceration: Part 1

A Closer Look at the Families of Mass Incarceration: Part 1

In the first installment of a two-part series, Urban Faith Writer Katelin Hansen gives our readers an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of the family and friends of those who are incarcerated. Check back soon for Part 2 of this compelling story.

Thanks to ongoing work of justice advocates across the United States, we are increasingly aware of the devastating effects of our prison system on the millions of individuals who have been incarcerated.

In the land of freedom and liberty, we incarcerate more of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world. There has been a 500% increase in our prison population over the last 30 years, and more than one out of every 100 adults in the country is currently behind bars.

Angela Davis notes that “prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.” Through a broken system of predatory profiling, mandatory sentencing, and profit mongering, millions of individuals are being “disappeared” from their communities, and from their families.

So what is it like to be on the outside while someone you love is on the inside?

PJ, Molly, Cheryl, and Kim share their stories.

Broken Relationships

“I grew up with siblings who were always in and out of jail,” PJ remembers. “Our family was constantly interrupted. I’ve never been in prison, but I have five siblings and they have all been in prison. It’s like they were caught in a cycle and they couldn’t get out. They weren’t out for even a year sometimes.”

The first time her older brother went to jail, he was nine.

PJ notes that a system that doesn’t repair what’s broken, just perpetuates the brokenness. “The prison system doesn’t fix anything, it just stalls it,” she notes. “My godbrother went in when his daughter was a baby, and came out when she was 18. So where is that whole relationship? Not only is it him who’s being institutionalized, but there’s her whose growing up without a father.”

By her own admission, Molly went to jail quite a bit when she was younger. “I was addicted and it really affected my kids, because I was not there,” she recalls. When she was inside, Molly’s mother took care of her children. She understands that when you’re locked up, “other people are having to hold up your end.” Each time she had to explain to her mother that she was once again locked up she knew it affected her mother emotionally.

Molly is usually the one that manages the household, which meant when she wasn’t around, others were left to handle things on their own. “It can make people feel abandoned, left behind, feeling somewhat at a lost as a result of my being locked up.”

“On the other hand,” Molly recalls, “my daughter’s father used to go in and out of jail a lot, and I actually felt relieved. He was abusive. When he was locked up I was happy because that meant he was out of my hair for a bit.”

Cheryl has two loved one’s currently in the system, one already sentenced, the other waiting to go through the process. “It’s almost like going through a loss, almost like a death,” she notes. “There’s a grieving process. There is a long adjustment.”

Kim’s youngest son has been locked away for awhile. She shares that “it’s hard even to gather as a family. He was the one who was always joking and laughing.” He has lost his support system, and they have lost him.

“He and his younger sister were real close. It’s been hard for her, not having him around her. We have a grandson that was his little buddy, and now he’s not around. They were babies when he left. Now they’re getting ready to graduate high school and go off to college”

Visits

PJ recalls going to visit her siblings in jail as a kid. “I hated how dingy and dark it was,” she says. “I hated talking to them through the glass on the phone. I remember having to be picked up to see them through the window.”

She now has a nephew that’s been inside for three years, even though he only just got sentenced a year ago. She is frustrated that she hasn’t been able to talk to him for a while.

Because he was arrested in another state, PJ and her nephew are nearly 2,000 miles apart from one another. “The prison does have video visits that you can buy,” she says. “But, you have to pay with a credit card, then you have to download software, then at the time assigned you have to log on with that software.”

PJ says the system works as long as you have access to things like credit cards, computers, reliable internet, and a webcam. But, it’s still a better situation than it used to be.

“When he first got there we had to write to him on a post card,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even write a letter. That was their rule. You had to communicate on a post card.”

Kim also struggled to overcome long distances to stay connected with her son during his incarceration. When she was, in fact, able to visit, it could be difficult. “He was very angry in the beginning, so visits were hard,” Kim recalls. “He would get mad and tell us not to visit. It took a long time for him to calm down and accept.”

However, for PJ it’s a no-win situation: “They cut you off and make you feel abandoned on both sides. The people on the outside feel abandoned, and the person doing time feels abandoned. Then you’re supposed to reunify that relationship afterward. But its already been traumatized.”

Visit our site next week for Part 2 of this story.

Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.

Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.

Conflicting Accounts

In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.

Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character

Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.

In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.

Catalyst for National Discussion

On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.

Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?

‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’

Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”

I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.