Prisoners With Physical Disabilities Are Forgotten And Neglected in America

Update: On June 28, 2017, at 2:00 pm ET, the ACLU is holding a Congressional briefing that will be attended by Senator Durbin on the ACLU’s report, Caged In: The Devastating Harms of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners with Physical Disabilities. Speakers will include Clarence Taylor and Dean Westwood, both formerly incarcerated prisoners with disabilities; Jamelia Morgan, author of the report and staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center; and Leann Bertsch, Director of North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. The briefing will be held in SVC Room 212-10 at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC. To attend, RSVP here by 10 AM ET on June 27.

Dean Westwood arrived at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon in a wheelchair. Prison officials required him to surrender his property, submit to a search, and agree to administrative procedures like finger printing. This is standard practice. But unlike other detainees, Dean is paralyzed below the waist and has limited use of his arms and hands.

Staff at the Oregon jail didn’t know how to handle someone with his disability. They rough-handled his limbs and pulled his fingers apart to get his fingerprints. They stripped him down for a search, rough-handling his genitals. They forced his body into a set of jail clothing that was a couple of sizes too small, which caused Dean severe irritation below the waist.

They then placed him alone in an isolated medical cell for approximately seven days. Without the means he needed for assistance in moving around, Dean lay flat on his back in an isolation cell. He endured painful convulsions because the jail failed to provide him with his medically necessary anti-seizure medication.

The way Coffee Creek jail officials treated Dean Westwood is a travesty, and his story is one of many. Prisoners with physical disabilities constitute one of the most vulnerable populations in detention, yet across the nation, they are needlessly subjected to neglect, denied services, and placed in solitary confinement.

Read the Full Report: Caged In

These prisoners rely on corrections staff for support and services every day, be it assistance in taking showers, getting dressed, receiving medication, utilizing law libraries, or visiting prison commissaries. Although comprehensive data on the number of prisoners with physical disabilities in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the nation are currently unavailable, as many as 26 percent of state prisoners report possessing a mobility, hearing, or visual disability, according to one 2003 estimate. When cognitive disabilities and disabilities that limit a prisoner’s ability for self-care are included, the proportion of prisoners with physical disabilities in prisons and jails increase to 32 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Moreover, as the prison population ages, reports indicate the number of prisoners living with physical disabilities in American prisons will increase significantly.

Despite these known facts, prisoners with physical disabilities are often denied the services they are entitled to under the law. Over 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits public entities from discriminating against people with disabilities, discrimination against people with disabilities persists in prisons and jails nationwide.

Recent court cases have brought to light the serious violations of the rights of prisoners with physical disabilities. In March 2015, the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Southern California, agreeing to provide mobility devices and physical therapy for prisoners with mobility disabilities after horrifying incidents of neglect and abuse. In an ongoing class action lawsuit, prisoners held in Illinois state prisons challenged the denial of, among other things, alert systems that would provide warnings to deaf prisoners during fires and other emergencies in the state prison facilities. Another recent case against the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola alleges that corrections staff refused to provide a blind prisoner with a cane for 16 years. The problems, however, didn’t stop there. The prison also declined to place him in a facility with accommodations for the blind. As a result, he was forced to rely on other prisoners rather than prison staff to carry out his daily activities.

Neglect is only part of the story. Prisoners with physical disabilities are at constant risk for placement in solitary confinement and its attendant harms. Though few studies exist examining the physical harms to prisoners placed in solitary, research suggests that placement in solitary can exacerbate existing disabilities or chronic conditions, particularly in cases where adequate care and treatment is not available for prisoners held in solitary. There is also extensive research that shows that placing individuals into solitary confinement causes devastating psychological harms.

Worse still, prisoners are often placed in solitary not as punishment but for logistical reasons. For example, when there are no available and accessible beds in the general prison population, prison officials may place prisoners with physical disabilities in solitary confinement as a solution to overcrowding.

In Maryland, Abdul Muhammad, a blind prisoner, sued the Maryland Department of Corrections (DOC) for placing him in solitary confinement and denying him access to showers, phone calls, religious services, visitation and library privileges as well as educational and vocational programming. The complaint alleges that prison officials informed Muhammad they were placing him in solitary until they figured out where to place him long term. Muhammad remained in solitary confinement for almost six weeks. The Maryland DOC’s actions flout federal regulations prohibiting the use of solitary in this way.

All prisoners in solitary risk being denied access to prison rehabilitative programs and services, but the harms of this denial are particularly acute for prisoners with physical disabilities. And it is a harm that perpetuates further harms. Prisoners are often required to complete “step-down” programs to progress out of solitary confinement. When institutions fail to provide, for example, a manual for prison rules or disciplinary procedures in Braille for blind prisoners or sign language interpreters during disciplinary hearings for deaf prisoners, they are creating significant obstacles to prisoners with physical disabilities being able to progress out of isolation. Rather than ignore or harm these prisoners, states must address and accommodate their physical disabilities.

There is much that is wrong that needs to be righted in our prisons and jails. To ensure that prisoners with disabilities are guaranteed their rights under the ADA, criminal justice advocates and disability rights advocates must come together to address discrimination against people with disabilities and work to make the promise of the ADA a reality in prisons and jails across America.

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My son was incarcerated for 3.5 years in Bridgewater, MA. During that time, he saw a deaf prisoner thrown into solitary for refusing to obey a spoken command, which was directed at his back. The corrections officer refused to believe that the man was deaf. Since my son signs, he offered to help this prisoner and went with him to medical and legal visits. Apparently, the system had no way of dealing with the deaf.


In stead of living in prison, maybe they shouldn't have committed a crime, just saying.


The criminal justice system (process) is outdated for our current society and is unjustice. There is truth to don't do the crime of you can't do the time, but let's not burden my tax dollars for wrongful time or laws themselves. Since when have we allowed the legislatures to require judges to incarcerate individuals for minimum mandatory sentences. What happened to the checks and balances? What has happened to a judges discretion? There are violent offenders among us, but pot selling, porno viewing individuals are behind bars for longer than murderers. C'mon really pot or pictures. Give us a break.

Sonni Quick

There is always someone like you who uses that line. Clearly you know little about why the US, by itself locks up 25%of all Prynne prisoners in the world. Could it be they don't all belong there and haven't committed a "crime"? I suggested getting educated and help us fight the corporations who own the prisons.


I won't get into the number of people who actually DIDN'T commit a crime and are incarcerated for no good reason, I will just point out a few things.
Did you know that being broke/poor/without financial resources is a crime? Check and see how many people are being held for small crimes at bails comparable to those of murderers - hence, the Bail Reform Act. Furthermore, those with limited financial means are less likely to receive appropriate defense counsil than those coming from money, EVEN WHEN THERE IS CLEAR AND OBVIOUS LAW ENFORCEMENT MISCONDUCT. People do this to avoid the "maximum sentence" which for even minor infractions can lead to up to 5 years in Prison. Did you also know that in some places you are subject to jailing if you can't pay an arbitrarily determined amount? Aclu NJ just fought a case like that. I believe they won the battle, but this war is long. While your statement may have simple merit, overall, it's a vast generalization.
I hope you never accidentally blow a stop sign or speed while your family suffers financial hardship. My guess? You come from a place of either great weath or piety. Either way, you are CLEARLY exempt from reality, right?


You're an ignorant ass... just saying


Yeah.... that's pretty ignorant Of you
Are you fucking perfect? Aren't there innocent people in jail ?


I had been trying to walk using my cane (normally in a wheelchair) away from my husband who had been violent with me and keeping my wheelchair from me. We had moved together to the state his friends and family were in- I knew no one. I never had any issues with the police ever before accept a speeding ticket when i was caught going 9 miles over the speed limit. I had my purse with my medication for my spine disorders, pain, and seizures in it as always. Before I knew it I was surrounded by police stripping me of my belongings and telling me to "step away from the cane", guns drawn & red laser dots all over my chest. No matter what I said they didn't believe me. I learned he had been following me with his car, watching as they cuffed me bending my spine & arms in ways they don't move, dragging my legs by my pulling backward on the cuffs & dislocating both shoulders. They thought the "spine problems" were bs. I was dropped face down and split my skull wide open on the concrete as hey booked me for having my daily medicine not in all 14 of the appropriate bottles -BUT DID NOT TELL ME WHAT MY CHARGES WERE-! At the hospital I was patched up and put in solitary confinement for 2 weeks then placed in psych in solitary confinement for 1 week and released to room and socialize with some very dangerous people. My 3d week there they finally took me to have X-rays of my spine & still no one could tell me why I was there. I lost track of time but finally one day I went to court & was later released on my own recognizance !!!BUT I HAD TO ACCEPT BEING CHARGED WITH HAVING METHAMPHETAMINE ON MY PERSON!!! Going nuts in there I accepted and they threw the book at me. 6yrs later Now I have PTSD, depression, anxiety many more spinal issues, many more health problems as a result, & even though I went back to my Mother & sisters across the country, he followed me back & now stalks me from a distance, sort of. There's no way to prove my truth but at least it was only a MISDEMEANOR which I went to court for 4 times & they still wanted me back again!
Would someone please tell me how something that obvious goes unnoticed? I was on time with my medications but kept all 14 of them in 1 bottle for convenience sake, I have NO idea how to even handle methamphetamine or do it!! I'm SO much more crippled now, there's no chance of healing anymore, my mind NEVER stops, no matter the medication nowadays my spine, head (migraines), & entire body constantly scream in pain on the inside, and I barely want to leave the house. Not everyone who is disabled and in jail has done something to deserve being in an environment like that.
Really, I'm curious how you can drop a statement like that & not look back. I'm just saying.
???--How did that become okay--???


I see what you are saying yes they did commit a crime but the prison and jails a commiting crimes by not providing them with the services and protections they are afforded under law lots of groups of people get mistreated in prison there is racism sexism rape just because a person has commited a crime does not validate or justify the level of treatment some are subjected to not to mention that there are people in prison who are innocent and falsely convicted who are treated like this. It's not about the crimes people have commited they are serving there time for that.


Ignorance at its finest....just sayin


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