I’m Paralyzed From the Collarbone Down, and My Time in Prison Revealed a System That Robs Prisoners of Their Rights and Dignity

I have a spinal cord injury in my neck, which rendered me paralyzed from the collarbone down. When I was sentenced to prison, my physical disability should have been taken into account by the corrections officers and staff. But it wasn’t. Instead I was deprived basic care and necessary services, which put my health at risk and caused me great harm.

While incarcerated with the Oregon Department of Corrections, I was needlessly isolated in an infirmary at three different institutions, despite having no medical condition that would warrant my being confined there. In the first institution, I was confined to my cell for 23 to 24 hours a day, which didn’t immediately make sense. I didn’t break any rules, and I was classified at the lowest security level.   

While I was confined to the infirmary, they were aware of the medications I needed due to my disability, but they withheld them from me.  They denied me a medication that keeps my bladder sphincter closed, so I don’t urinate on myself. I didn’t get that, so I uncontrollably urinated all over myself on a regular basis. They denied me the medication that keeps my body from locking up in terrible muscle spasms. Without it, my entire body would spasm like a fish out of water squeezing the air from my lungs as I lay helplessly on my bunk. When I asked why they weren’t giving me the medication I needed to maintain my basic health, the staff told me they wanted me to “have a holiday from my medications.”

In the second institution, I wasn’t allowed access to the yard. Instead I was only allowed to spend a little time on a 15-square-foot slab of cement with 20-foot-tall walls and a metal grate over the top. Despite repeated requests, I wasn’t allowed to participate in any programs that would reduce my sentence like inmates that did not have a disability were allowed to do. I wasn’t allowed to work to generate any money for commissary or to call my family. I was repeatedly harmed by inmate orderlies required to provide my assistance but had no training.  

At the third institution, I was confined to a dorm-like infirmary where I was assaulted by nondisabled inmates. I again was not allowed access to the yard. After a surgery on my spinal cord, I was denied physical therapy critical to my recovery and long-term health in violation of my neurosurgeon’s direct instructions. It became apparent to me that I was being punished and damaged not because of my crime but because of my physical disability.

When I asked why I was being confined to the infirmary and isolated, the response was, “We will put you where we want when we want.” My injury took away some of my abilities. But it was the prison staff that assaulted my humanity.

The Oregon Department of Corrections isn’t architecturally or programmatically capable of caring for any prisoner with a physical disability. Oregon State Penitentiary was built in the1800s, and its structures were literally crumbling around us. The inmate orderlies who assisted me were ignorant of how to properly assist someone with a severe physical disability, and they were never trained. The facility and its staff are both culpable.

We need to address the incalculable harm done physically and mentally to incarcerated people with disabilities. To start, we must track how people with physical disabilities are treated so that we have the information that will guide and power reform. Then both state and federal legislators must work with prisoners’ rights advocates, prisoners, prosecutors, and judges to reform the system so that its inherent biases are erased and prisoners with physical disabilities are not put in jeopardy simply because of their disability.

Reform is the only way to protect prisoners in our nation who are under constant threat. It’s their legal right to be protected. It’s our moral obligation to enact the reforms necessary to ensure those protections. 

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Anonymous

What is the case number of the lawsuit that the ACLU has filed on behalf of this person?

Anonymous

Since you had rehab surgery on your spine I'm assuming your injury was recent. Was it, perhaps, received during the commission of your crime or a suicide attempt?
I hate to be cruel or unsympathetic but if you are disabled due to a crime you committed (high speed pursuit), we're in the process of committing (someone lawfully defending themselves from a burglary or assault) then you don't deserve our sympathy.
I'm 100% disabled myself due to chronic pain caused by someone driving on a suspended driver's license "not paying attention". This happened when I was 38, a wife who was a stay at home mom, two beautiful children and making $93k/year despite not having a college degree. Now I'm single (yes, my disability cost me my marriage), my ex-wife has to work instead of raising her children and I'm lucky if I make 1/3 of that.
Again, if you received your injury due to your own actions or someone protecting themselves from your actions ask for pity somewhere else. I'm fresh out.

Anonymous

It seems the charges were Medicaid fraud. oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2014/03/man_who_collected_disability_c.html

Anonymous

No one, regardless of how they received their injury should be mistreated, denied medication or assaulted in a facility that claims to represent a rehabilitative process such as the criminal justice system does. If civilization is ever to advance the people in charge must ultimately have empathy to all of those in their care. This is how empathy becomes modelled so that those that might not otherwise have caring role models come to see the world is not a free for all disaster. this is how change comes about...

Anonymous

Google says it was Medicaid fraud and that this gentleman was disabled before committing his crimes, but honestly, it doesn't matter. I'm also a wheelchair user due to being paralyzed in an MVA at 14. Allowing discrimination against disabled people in the justice system hurts all of us. When mentally ill prisoners are locked in solitary and taunted by guards into attempting suicide, it hurts all of us. When prostheses are taken away from amputee prisoners, severely limiting their mobility and autonomy, it hurts all of us.
Disabled prisoners are already at an extremely high risk for abuse from their fellow prisoners, guards and staff. This simply cannot be allowed.
You don't rescind your human rights when you make a mistake. That's kinda a fundamental tenant of the ACLU.

Anonymous

Regardless of how he sustained the initial injury fact remains the facility staff did not, refused to or did not have the proper training to provide care. We may not like how or why he was there but that is no reason to cause further injury or withhold treatment or medication.

Anonymous

Stories like these, and the comments that follow it, are stark reminders of how uninformed the general population is about basic human rights and equality under the constitution. I truly hope ACLU is able to reclaim this person's dignity.

Anonymous

I'm sorry. You received a 2-year sentence for health-care fraud. I'm afraid I have very little sympathy for your plight. Do your time and don't steal from taxpayers again. koin.com/2014/03/10/ohsu-employee-gets-2-years-sentence-fraud/

Anonymous

So which offenders *do* you think deserve to have their medical needs met?

Anonymous

Well I hope whatever dumbass down here is saying that this person deserved to be mistreated ends up handicapped herself. You are what is wrong with our society as a whole. Regardless if this person committed a crime, they don't deserve to be caused to urinate all over themselves or to get hurt on a daily basis. I hope you lose your ability to hold your bowels and that you shit all over yourself on a daily basis.

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