article by Helen Campbell, for Ability Chicago Info | Nov. 16, 2016
Going to prison is never an ideal situation. If you’re facing prison as a disabled person, it can be a very difficult situation indeed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the prison system in general, and whether someone deserves their incarceration or not, Americans with disabilities have legal rights which should be respected by the prison in question. Unfortunately, partly because our prison system is under considerable strain, and partly due to generalised ignorance about the needs of disabled people, these rights are all too frequently not met as they should be. If you or someone you know is disabled and facing prison, and you’re concerned about how their disability will be accommodated, here are a few things you need to know:
Disabled Prisoners Are Entitled To The Same Quality Of Life As Non-Disabled Prisoners
In theory, all other things being equal, prisoners in similar institutions facing similar sentences for similar misdemeanors should experience roughly the same quality of life, and be privy to the same allowances and restrictions. In practice, of course, there are failings and prejudices within the system which prevent this from happening, as well as practical and individual limitations. However, should a prisoner be experiencing pain or distress due to a disability inadequately provided for by the prison system, or have their disability used against them in a punitive context, this could be (and has been) presented as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Prisons, therefore, are obliged to be accommodating enough to those with disabilities to bring their quality of life in line with that of more able prisoners. On a similar note, disability accommodations should not allow disabled prisoners a significantly higher quality of life than non-disabled prisoners.
Statutes To Be Aware Of
There are two main statutes to be aware of when it comes to the rights of disabled prisoners. These are:
- Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131.
The American prison system being the complex mix of private and public, federal and state that it is, the way in which these statutes are applied varies depending on which prison the prisoner in question is being held in. The Rehabilitation Act applies to federally run or funded prisons, while the Americans With Disabilities Act can be applied more broadly, regardless of federal input into the relevant prison. Basically, both of these statutes prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, and entitle disabled Americans to equal treatment under the law - including the provision, where appropriate, of disability-friendly infrastructures, equipment, medications and so on. In recent years, the ADA has been amended to allow a far broader interpretation of ‘disability’ than was previously the case, and to prevent wranglings about what, precisely, constituted a ‘disability’ in the first place.
Challenging Discrimination And/Or Lack Of Provision
While statutes exist to protect and enforce the rights of disabled prisoners, it can nonetheless be difficult to bring cases against prisons - particularly from the inside. The culture of authority within many prisons being what it is, making one’s voice heard regarding disability treatments and provisions can be very difficult. This is particularly the case with mental health issues - the treatment of which prisons in America have come under repeated fire for. However, it is not impossible to force prisons to obey to law. To do so, they must prove that they are
- Disabled according to the definitions of the statutes
- That their needs pertaining to their disability are not being met, and that their quality of life is impeded as a result
- And/or that they have been excluded from, received no benefit from, or have otherwise been discriminated against within the prison program due to their disability.
- If charges are being brought under the Rehabilitation Act, prisoners must additionally show that the institution in which they are being held receives federal funding.
Sometimes, simply raising the issue with prison management, and mentioning the relevant statutes is enough to bring about the required changes. However, should the case progress to court, prisons may be obliged to pay damages to affected prisoners. This aspect is further complicated by the issue of ‘Sovereign Immunity’, which renders states immune from many kinds of monetary lawsuits. However, in many cases, the situation need not reach the courts. Most prisons should be aware of their legal obligations concerning disability and, so long as disability can be adequately proven, and prison management can be forced to listen to complainants, the issues can be solved internally.
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Helen Campbell has been a valued contributor for Ability Chicago Info, previous articles from Helen include: