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DEI July: Americans with Disabilities Act

The RISE Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee invites you to recognize the Americans with Disabilities Act during July, as this directly impacts the people we work with and care about. 

July 26th recognizes the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which protects people with disabilities from discrimination in the areas of employment, transportation, and public accommodation. Nineteen percent of all Americans have a formally diagnosed disability. However, people behind bars in state and federal prisons are nearly 3 times as likely to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population, while those in jails are more than 4 times as likely. 

In 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported:

  • 40% of people inside state prison and 29% of people inside federal prison reported having a disability.
  • Half of all incarcerated women report having a disability.
  • Of those housed in state prisons, 24% report a cognitive disability; 12% report a movement disability, 12% a vision disability, and 10% hearing disabilities.
  • 26% of people in federal prison and 13% in federal prison reported being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Rights Behind Bars states although the majority of individuals incarcerated in America have at least one disability, jails and prisons across the country have overlooked the needs of this vulnerable population. 

  • People with developmental disabilities who are incarcerated  are subject to longer terms of imprisonment. 
  • Those with auditory or visual impairments are often placed in “protective custody” or “medical isolation,” where they are confined 22 hours a day. 
  • Immigration detainees are regularly placed in solitary confinement when they exhibit signs of mental illness. 
  • Individuals with mental health conditions in prison and jail are also vulnerable, often being made to endure corporal punishment at the hands of prison guards. 

In addition to facing disproportionate rates of incarceration, people with disabilities are also more likely to be the victims of police violence. Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kristiana Coignard, and Robert Ethan Saylor were all individuals with disabilities whose lives ended during a police encounter. According to an investigation by The Washington Post, 25% of the individuals shot and killed by police officers in 2015 were people with mental health disabilities. 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. 

According to the Center for American Progress, the mass incarceration of people with disabilities is not only unjust, unethical, and cruel—it’s also expensive. Community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than housing an individual behind bars. In Los Angeles County, the average cost of jailing an individual with serious mental illness exceeds $48,500 per year. By comparison, the yearly cost for providing assertive community treatment and supportive housing—one of the most intensive, comprehensive, and successful intervention models in use today—amounts to less than $20,500, just 2/5 the cost of jail.

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled the ADA does not distinguish prisons from non-prisons, therefore, its protection applies to prisoners with disabilities, guaranteeing reasonable accommodations and access to programming. Nevertheless, while behind bars, people with disabilities are often deprived of necessary medical care, as well as needed support, services, and accommodations. 

Many people with disabilities already face significant barriers to employment, housing, and other necessary elements of security, the addition of a criminal record poses further obstacles that make living with a disability a greater challenge. The AVID Prison Project also reports disabled people are often denied access to vocational and release planning programs while incarcerated, or placed in programs without accommodations for their disabilities. 

The Center for American Progress has compiled a list of recommendations for improving how people with disabilities interact with criminal justice systems (please follow the link for greater detail):

  • Invest in community-based services
  • End criminalization of homelessness
  • Establish an Office of Disability within the U.S. Department of Justice and a Federal Interagency Council on Criminal Justice and Disability
  • Improve police practices and expand training
  • Divert people with disabilities to community-based services
  • Ensure accessibility, needed accommodations, and appropriate treatment within the court system
  • Ensure safe, accessible, and appropriate conditions behind bars
  • Support successful reentry
  • Improve data collection