Disabled Behind Bars

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Photo by Allison Cornford via Flickr

SolitaryAllison Cornford

Photo by Allison Cornford via Flickr

Photo by Allison Cornford via Flickr

Individuals with physical and mental disabilities are dramatically over-represented in the nation’s prisons and jails but little attention is paid to their special needs,  according to a study released this month by the Center for American Progress.

The study cites Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing that people behind bars in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population, and calls this a consequence of the “de-institutionalization” pursued by many jurisdictions that has closed state mental hospitals and other facilities.

Study author Rebecca Vallas argues that although de-institutionalization was regarded as a positive development, it was “not accompanied by the public investment necessary to ensure that community-based alternatives were available.”

She also notes that the lack of care inside prisons and jails for individuals suffering from mental health disabilities often exacerbates their conditions—especially those who are placed in solitary confinement “for their own protection.”

Dealing with disabled individuals must be a “key part’ of the bipartisan conversation on criminal justice reform, the study says—and it suggests steps policymakers can take to ensure “appropriate and humane” treatment of people with disabilities throughout the justice system.


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