Caged In: The ‘Devastating’ Impact of Solitary on the Disabled

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Photo by Nikolai Vassiliev via Flickr

Solitary confinement puts prisoners with physical disabilities at greater risk than inmates in the general population and should never be used unless  such prisoners represent  genuine security risks to themselves or others, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  study concluded.

The study, released today, said the “devastating psychological and physical harms” associated with solitary are compounded  when deaf, blind or otherwise disabled inmates are put in that position—even when it is ordered for their safety.

The ACLU researchers said no national  data was available documenting how many of the  80,000 to 100,000 inmates assigned to solitary or administrative segregation on any given day in the U.S. were physically disabled, but figures from some state corrections systems suggest  the problem is increasing as the number of disabled individuals behind bars grows.

One out of 10 prisoners in California, for instance, report a hearing, visual and/or mobility disability, the study said.

The report  used interviews with  current and formerly incarcerated  inmates with disabilities, and with medical experts and prisoners’ advocates to draw a chilling picture of the special problems such prisoners face when they are in solitary.

“One blind prisoner was held in solitary confinement for six weeks without any explanation until corrections officials determined where to place him,” the study said. “During that time he was denied access to showers, clean clothing, telephone calls, commissary, visitation, job assignments, and writing materials.”

The study, entitled “Caged In: Solitary Confinement’s Devastating Harm on Prisoners With Physical Disabilities,” warned that the special problems facing disabled prisoners were likely to increase with prison overcrowding and the aging of the U.S. incarcerated population.

The recommendations by the ACLU included:

  • End the use of solitary for physically disabled prisoners unless there is a compelling reason to keep them segregated from the prison population—and only until alternative placement can be found;
  • Ensure that those physically disabled who are in solitary receive any special care or equipment they need, such as wheelchairs, access to deaf sign interpreters and other auxiliary aids;
  • Conduct a regular audit of all prisons to evaluate how well they conform with obligations under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • Increase federal funding for “protection and advocacy” organizations who can track the treatment of incarcerated individuals who are physically disabled.

Lead author of the ACLU study is Jamelia Morgan. Read the full report here.

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