The Mass Incarceration of People with Disabilities

In the wake of the tragic police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, as well as the deaths of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, the national debate around policing reform has been newly—and rightly—reignited.

But this is just one aspect of a broadly shared recognition that America’s four-decade-long experiment with mass incarceration has been a failure. We lock up a greater share of our citizens than any other developed nation, at an annual cost of more than $80 billion. We do little to prepare individuals behind bars for their eventual release, yet are surprised when two-thirds return to jail or prison.

Certain populations—including communities of color, residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, and LGBT individuals—have been particularly hard-hit. But all too rarely discussed is the impact the criminal justice system has on Americans with disabilities.

Over the past six decades, there has been a widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other facilities that serve people with disabilities—a shift often referred to as deinstitutionalization. Between 1955 and 1994 the number of Americans residing in such institutions dropped sharply, from nearly 560,000 to about 70,000. Deinstitutionalization is widely regarded as a positive and necessary development, but it wasn’t accompanied by the public investment needed to ensure the availability of community-based alternatives. As a result, the United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another, with jails and prisons now serving as social service providers of last resort.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, state and federal prison inmates are nearly three times as likely—and jail inmates are more than four times as likely—to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population. One in five prison inmates have a serious mental illness. In fact, there are now three times as many people with mental health conditions in federal and state prisons and jails as there are in state mental hospitals.

Source: Center for American Progress
Source: Center for American Progress

Mass incarceration of people with disabilities is not only unjust, unethical, and cruel—it’s also expensive. Community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than housing an individual behind bars. In Los Angeles County, the average cost of jailing an individual with serious mental illness exceeds $48,500 per year. By comparison, the yearly price tag for providing assertive community treatment and supportive housing—one of the most intensive, comprehensive, and successful intervention models in use today—amounts to less than $20,500, just two-fifths the cost of jail.

In addition to facing disproportionate rates of incarceration, people with disabilities are also especially likely to be the victims of police violence. Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kristiana Coignard, and Robert Ethan Saylor—all individuals with disabilities whose tragic stories of being killed at the hands of police officers garnered significant recent national media attention—are but four high-profile examples of a sadly commonplace occurrence. While data on police-involved killings are limited, one study estimates that people with disabilities comprise between one-third and one-half of all individuals killed by law enforcement. And according to an investigation by The Washington Post, one-quarter of the individuals shot to death by police officers in 2015 were people with mental health conditions.

The United States has traded one form of mass institutionalization for another.

What’s more, once people with disabilities are incarcerated, they are often illegally deprived of necessary medical care, supports, services, and accommodations. A recent report by the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project highlights numerous examples of inmates denied access to needed medications, prosthetic limbs, and hearing aids; individuals with cognitive impairments unable to access medical treatment because they were unable to fill out request forms; inmates who are deaf missing medication delivery because of lack of accommodations; inmates who have sustained injuries due to lack of accessible toilets and showers; and more.

Prison and jail inmates with disabilities are also at particular risk of mistreatment at the hands of guards and other correctional employees. A 2015 report by Human Rights Watch documents an epidemic of “unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious use of force” in U.S. prisons and jails that targets inmates with mental health conditions, through harsh tactics such as chemical sprays and electric stun devices; strapping of inmates to beds and chairs for days at a time; and physical violence resulting in broken jaws, noses, and ribs, as well as “lacerations, second degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs,” and even death.

Moreover, many inmates with disabilities are held in solitary confinement as a substitute for appropriate accommodations. This practice continues despite a large and growing body of research documenting that even short stays in solitary can have severe and long-lasting consequences for people with disabilities, and particularly those with mental health conditions. Even individuals who had not previously lived with mental health conditions experience significant psychological distress following solitary confinement, as the tragic but all-too-common case of Kalief Browder brought to light last year. Browder died by suicide after being held for nearly two years in solitary confinement in Rikers Island on charges, later dismissed, that he had stolen a backpack.

Seventeen years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. L.C.—which held that unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in institutional settings is unlawful discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act—it is long past time that we brought the mass incarceration of people with disabilities to an end.

First and foremost, reversing this shameful trend will require meaningful investment in our nation’s social service and mental health treatment infrastructure to ensure availability of community-based alternatives. That way, jails and prisons will no longer be forced to serve as social service providers of last resort. But it will also require including disability as a key part of the criminal justice reform conversation taking place in Congress, and in states and cities across the United States.

Editor’s Note: A new report by the Center for American Progress, Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons, will be released at a White House Forum on Monday, July 18. A livestream of the event is available here.


First Person

Before They Were Hashtags

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives to police brutality last week.  While their deaths fit an all too familiar narrative for black men and women living in America, what we haven’t emphasized enough—especially in the accounts told by media—is the value their lives held.

Before they were hashtags, these men mattered.

I can say this with certainty because I was raised in the “hood” in South Memphis that was home to a CD/DVD man like Alton and cafeteria workers like Philando. These men helped to bring light and joy to my life, and the lives of all of my community members. Our “bootleg man,” like Alton, was a fixture outside of the neighborhood shopping center—always cracking jokes and willing to cut deals with loyal customers. I was “Red” to him—a nickname given to me by several people due to my light-skinned complexion.  He remembered my love of Anita Baker and Stevie Wonder, and always made a relentless effort to make me smile, even if I didn’t purchase a CD from him that day.

My hometown is riddled with poverty and violence, and shrouded with a hopelessness that clings to its residents like the humid summer heat.  Run-down homes and buildings stretch for miles on litter-filled streets, and our community park is marked by broken swings and rotted park benches. From kindergarten through second grade, my classmates and I were dismissed early from school as soon as the summer heat began, because the school’s air conditioner was broken. In third grade, we were once sent home because asbestos was falling on us from the caved-in ceiling. I can still remember the tingly itchiness of the fibers on my eight-year-old back and shoulders.

Still, black joy found a way to exist: it came to us through the CD/DVD man who provided affordable entertainment and a charismatic, hard-working attitude to emulate; and cafeteria workers who made you feel special by remembering your favorite meal, and that you loved the butter cookies more than the chocolate chip ones.

These men mattered.

What if the media spoke about the men who lost their lives in this light? What if the accounts of Alton focused on his generosity and value to his community, instead of his mugshot and criminal record?

What if instead of replaying the gruesome video of Philando’s dying body, major news outlets shared the beautiful statement  from the Saint Paul Public School District that details how beloved he was to his colleagues, and describes the “great relationships” he had with the staff and students he helped to feed every day?

What if the media acknowledged that economic shifts hit black communities—many of which are already in poverty—the hardest?  What if it regularly explored the ways that men like Alton Sterling and Eric Garner—killed by a New York City Police Department officer in 2014—are examples of “the black men most likely to be left out of the formal economy,” who engage in “hustles to make ends meet, and are far more likely to suffer from police violence,” as Lester Spence, a professor of political science at John Hopkins University, told Salon.

When you are in poverty, and at such a disadvantage in our economy, you must hustle to create opportunities for yourself—not to build wealth, but to survive.

I hustle, too. Along with several of my peers, I engage in informal work—like housesitting, babysitting, and pet-sitting—for additional income. Are we immune from the critiques applied to Alton or Eric because we are college-educated individuals living and working in the nation’s capital?

Their humanity—along with the humanity of everyone who is living in poverty—deserves acknowledgment, respect, and honor.

Before you cast Alton as a criminal or thug, or offer up tortured logic saying that Philando “should’ve just followed the police orders,” consider these men as men. They were fathers, significant others, providers, and beams of light and love among their families and peers. They were individuals with real worth to their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Their humanity—along with the humanity of everyone who is living in poverty—deserves acknowledgment, respect, and honor.

So before you type a hashtag in front of their names—full of rage and righteous indignation—stop and ask yourself: would these men have mattered to you before they were so tragically taken? Would you have purchased a CD from Alton? Would you have spoken to Philando? Would you have even noticed them?

Alton and Philando mattered.  Their black lives mattered before #BlackLivesMatter, and they always will.  We need to celebrate people’s worth when it truly matters the most—during their lives. Then maybe fewer black men and women will be reduced to a hashtag.

Editor’s Note: In the weeks and months ahead, TalkPoverty is committed to continuing the conversation on race, privilege, and change.  We invite your submissions at info@talkpoverty.org.


First Person

A Wake-Up Call for White Progressives

The night after Alton Sterling was killed by police, I got home from work late.  When our three children were asleep, my wife and I finally had a moment together.

The first thing she said, as if she had been sitting on it all day, was: “I feel like we need to get a Black Lives Matter sign for our yard. I know it would be unusual in our neighborhood.”

We live in Chevy Chase, D.C., in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the city. There are about 30 houses on my block, and only one African-American family that I know of. But it didn’t surprise me that my wife wanted a public display of solidarity.  In 1990, when she was 16, her classmate Phillip Pannell was shot in the back and killed while fleeing police at the elementary school they had attended in Teaneck, New Jersey.  It molded her thinking on race and justice.

I was non-committal on the sign—not opposed, I just hadn’t thought of it before.

I had always considered myself a good ally on race: I was born in the nation’s capital on one of the worst days in American history—the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—when the city was burning, the National Guard was deployed, and a curfew was imposed.  As far back as I can remember, I have thought about what the man—and the movement—have meant to our nation, and the connection between the pogroms my family experienced in Europe and the African-American experience here.

So why, then, the hesitation on the sign?

Exhausted, I drifted off picturing it in our front yard: Who would we be speaking to?  What would the sign achieve?  Would it cause people to target my home or my children? How would I explain the sign to my 3- and 6-year olds?  (My 10-year-old could probably get it, and maybe that conversation was overdue.)


I woke to the news of Philando Castile—shot dead in his car in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old child as he reached for his license and registration.

I came to work not wanting to continue business-as-usual.  Instead, I joined a gathering of about 50 of my colleagues to talk about the killing of black people.  I didn’t talk, myself. That’s what many white allies think we should do when people of color are suffering: shut up, listen, and be supportive.

When will you get as angry as I am? Which killing will be the one that finally does it for you?

My black friends and colleagues expressed anguish, anger, hopelessness, hope, and sheer exhaustion.  But what stuck with me the most was when a black male colleague asked his white coworkers, “When will you get as angry as I am?  Which killing will be the one that finally does it for you?  I feel hopeless.  And nothing changes in this country unless white people want it to.”

I left looking for a way to take action. The news cycle will move on from these killings, but my colleagues and I can make sure TalkPoverty doesn’t.  I reached out to some folks who had shared powerful reflections during the meeting and asked if they were interested in writing.  You will likely hear from some of them in the coming days.

But one friend emailed me, “I’m not in a place where I can write yet. If you want to get the ball rolling, it’s a great act of allyship to know you don’t have all the answers but want to show support when your peers are hurting, especially when you have a platform.”


I woke up Friday morning to the news that five police officers were killed in Dallas. I was hit with shock and sadness—and then the realization that people will try to blame the Black Lives Matter movement.  I checked Twitter and Facebook, and sure enough that narrative had already emerged.  I’m not a huge fan of tweeting, but the message I received from my colleagues the previous day was that white people need to speak up.

So I did:

I went downstairs and asked my wife if she had heard the news.  She hadn’t, and when I told her, her jaw dropped.  My 10-year-old daughter noticed.

“What?” she asked.

My daughter and I walked out of earshot of her younger siblings.  We sat down and I told her what had happened in Dallas, and also what the people had been demonstrating about: You know how if Mommy or Daddy were driving too fast a policeman would stop us and give us a ticket, and then we would drive away?

From there I struggled through what she has learned in school about racism in the past—slavery, segregation, civil rights—but also what she didn’t necessarily understand yet: that racism isn’t gone.  I told her that some people think that black people aren’t as good as other people, or they are afraid of them, or both, and it has led to things like black people getting shot (my daughter winced) when they should have just gotten a ticket, or not even that.  So now there are a lot of us saying “Black Lives Matter” to fight against racism that has never gone away.

I’ve been in a slumber, because I could be, without even knowing it.

I told her if we were black we would have had this conversation when she was younger and it would have been very different, something like: “If a police officer ever talks to you, listen to whatever he says, you can’t talk back, you can’t make any quick movements, because some of them might be prejudiced against you just because you are black and hurt you badly.  People even get killed.”  I told my daughter that black parents have to worry about their children’s safety in ways her mom and I don’t, simply because of skin color.

She got it much better than I explained it, I think.  Just as she thought it absurd when she first learned there was never a black president before Obama, and literally laughed aloud, incredulous, when I told her there has never been a woman president.  Because in her world, there is no room for these injustices—just as there is no room for a parent needing to have a conversation with their child about the life-and-death stakes of their interactions with police.


My wife and I are getting the Black Lives Matter sign. We’re posting it in our lily-white neighborhood, which is exactly the kind of place where we need to start these long overdue conversations.

I used to think I was very progressive on race.  But I’ve been in a slumber, because I could be, without even knowing it.

No more.

Editor’s Note: In the weeks and months ahead, TalkPoverty is committed to continuing the conversation on race, privilege, and change.  We invite your submissions at info@talkpoverty.org.



Appalachian Schools are Helping Isolated Students Go to College. Here’s How.

We are used to a certain narrative about concentrated poverty and education: it takes place in the inner city, features students of color, and often includes a supporting role for public housing projects.

There’s no doubt that these cities, and their schools, face serious problems that deserve our attention. But a set of very different communities are virtually invisible in narratives about education and poverty in America. These are mostly stories about white children in rural, isolated communities from Alabama to Virginia—in Appalachia. As The New York Times reported in its series on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Appalachia is one of the only corners of our country that was virtually untouched by that massive effort. And it shows.

This region has long been among the poorest in the country, and it was hit hard in recent decades by job losses in manufacturing and coal mining. Because those industries, along with agriculture, formed the backbone of Appalachian economies, higher education was a low priority—and that attitude hasn’t changed with the new economy.

Fortunately, new strategies are emerging to improve the prospects of children and families in these communities.

One of the most pervasive barriers in Appalachia is the isolation.  Towns and homes are far from one another, roads can be treacherous, and public transportation is virtually non-existent. In the northeast corner of Tennessee, Unicoi County High School Principal Chris Bogart describes the challenges of delivering the tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment activities that his students need.

“[One new staff member] suggested just giving the kids bus tokens to get home from afterschool activities, like in her prior district. Sure, I said, that would be great if Unicoi had buses,” Bogart said.

As a way to work around the lack of afterschool transportation, the school piloted an hour-long lunch.   Students eat wherever they want, which gives them the opportunity to visit the media center, get help with math homework, or rehearse a skit with their fine arts teacher, among other activities.  The faculty—who had been skeptical about the change—reports that their relationships with students, and the school climate, improved noticeably.

Isolation and a lack of transportation options also mean that many children—and adults—have never traveled beyond their immediate area. During one Unicoi High School class trip to Nashville—the first time most students had left the region—one student’s parents were so worried that they drove alongside the bus for the entire five hours. Staff at Unicoi are now researching grant possibilities to fund similar trips—including to college campuses and Washington, D.C.—so that their students have a better sense of the world and its possibilities.

According to the teachers, school board members, and social workers whom I spoke with, this kind of exposure is critical to getting their students “across the finish line” in high school and thinking seriously about college. They recounted the challenge of their own relatives having less-than-positive reactions to their declarations that they wanted to be the first in the family to go to college.  “You’re getting above your raisin’,” was one common response.

Just 22 percent of adults in Appalachia have bachelors’ degrees—fewer than in any other area of the country—because working in factories, railroads, and coalmines was the norm. The widespread loss of these employers—including the abrupt shuttering of CSX’s Erwin, TN terminal in October—is devastating Appalachian communities.  And yet, according to several Erwin community leaders I spoke with, many parents still view post-secondary education as unnecessary or even a sign of snobbery.

But educators across Appalachia are trying to change this mindset. At last month’s Appalachian Higher Education Network conference, there was a focus on helping schools create a college-going culture. Innovative ideas include annual trips—beginning as early as elementary school—to both community and four-year colleges; and partnerships that allow students to accrue college credit in their high schools, at a local college, or online. A growing number of schools host college and career festivals where teachers and principals offer testimonials about overcoming their own fears of being the first in their families to make it past high school.

When new strategies like these are bolstered by a higher education institution that is working to address the region’s needs, the impact can be even greater.

Berea College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky, enrolls only “academically promising” students from low-income families—mostly from Appalachia—who attend entirely tuition-free. It is also home to Partners for Education (PfE), where dozens of outreach and support staff—many of whom are Berea graduates themselves—provide students and their families with a range of supports, such as Skype mentors for at-risk students who are physically isolated, mailing books to students and online book clubs to avert summer learning loss, college preparatory services, and targeted professional development for teachers.  These are exactly the kinds of activities that Unicoi and other schools seek as part of creating a college-going culture.

All of these services are reinforced by smart state policies. Thanks to a well-funded state early childhood education  initiative, one-fourth of Kentucky’s 4-year-olds attend high-quality pre-k programs (compared to fewer than one-fifth in neighboring Virginia, where programs are also of lower quality).  And the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act created Family Resource and Youth Services Centers (FRYSC) across the state to advance the goal of “removing nonacademic barriers to learning” through physical, mental health, academic, and family support services tailored to each community’s needs. For example, the FRYSC in Berea offers afterschool and summer enrichment activities as well as crisis counseling.

All of this creative work and community engagement is paying off. A recent study of the 26-county region served by Berea documented key steps toward making college a reality for many more students: better quality among early childhood education providers, more children participating in arts and tutoring programs, teachers receiving strong professional development, and math and reading scores that are rising faster than the state average.

Unique, place-based challenges require innovative policy solutions. Berea and Unicoi are showing us what some of those solutions look like.  Maybe fifty years from now if journalists return to this region, they will report on this moment, when new policies began to change the prospects of children and their families.



The Next Step for Organized Labor? People in Prison.

In the early 2000s, the small but militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) launched union drives at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s.  At the time, many in the mainstream labor movement scratched their heads. Traditionally, labor groups believed that the high turnover of fast food workers would make them impossible to organize.

Nearly a decade later, fast food workers and the Fight for $15 are a central focus of the mainstream labor movement. And, given IWW’s ability to unionize workers who once seemed out of reach, many labor organizers now look to them as an incubator of new organizing strategies.

Now IWW faces one of the biggest challenges in its history: convincing the broader labor movement to embrace the approximately 400,000 Americans employed as prison labor across the U.S.

This spring, the IWW and allied community groups organized prison labor strikes of thousands of incarcerated workers in Alabama, Wisconsin, Texas, Mississippi, and Ohio—all demanding the right to form a union. The IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has called for a nationwide prison strike on September 9th to mark the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and claims it has the support of thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S.

“It could really shake things up,” IWW organizer Jimi Del Duca told me. “A lot of working class people are afraid to organize because they have a few crumbs to lose. [Many] prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

Prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them courage. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

However, the barriers to organizing prisoners are high. Communication between prisons is difficult, as most prisoners are not allowed access to email. Even within prisons, inmates are limited in their ability to meet face-to-face.  While they are allowed to assemble routinely for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or religious activities, the 1977 Supreme Court case Jones v. North Carolina Labor Prisoners’ Union denied them their first amendment right to assemble if a warden feels a gathering is a threat to prison security. As a result, wardens block most prisoners’ union meetings.

However, Elon University Labor Law Professor Eric Fink says that prisoners may have another option. The right of prisoners to form a union has never been challenged in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union certification case, and Fink believes that prisoners could use the NLRB process to push for the right to meet regularly and form collective bargaining units. He argues that prison workers—employed by private contractors in 37 states—should have the same right to form a union as other workers employed by those contractors. According to Fink, if the IWW were to bring a case before the NLRB, then the Board could declare that prisoners are employees who are eligible to join a union.

“I think the Board is capable of saying there are issues that [incarcerated people] have the right to bargain for—such as hours and wages—as any other worker would have the right to do,” said Fink.

As for prison workers who are employed directly by the state, Fink feels they could organize more easily. Under federal labor law, each individual state has a Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) which governs how labor law is applied in the jurisdiction. Often, the leadership of the PERB is heavily influenced by local labor leadership. So, if a public sector union such as AFSCME were to endorse the right of prisoners to form unions, state-level PERBs might be inclined to extend that right.

However, there is a catch: many public sector unions also represent guards, who may be lukewarm to the idea of prisoners forming unions.

“The problem is that insofar as a number of public sector unions have prison guards as members—and sometimes in large numbers—it has an impact on the ability to have that discussion,” said Bill Fletcher, the former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Heather Ann Thompson, Professor of History in the African American Studies at the University of Michigan, believes that guards should see prisoners’ unions as a win for them, too.

“These are workplaces that are deeply unsafe and barbaric,” said Thompson. She believes that giving workers a collective voice may reduce gang violence, because it will give prisoners a structure through which they can advocate for themselves. Unions would also provide guards and prisoners with the means to push together for a safer prison environment.

Thompson also argues that it is in organized labor’s best interest to help prison workers. Some Republican governors—such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—have used prison labor to replace unionized public employees.

“Prisoners have no power to resist being employed as scab labor,” said Thompson. “Rather than resent the prisoners, the idea would be to support prison labor workers’ right to resist work.”

Prisoners have no power to resist being employed as scab labor.

It remains unclear if the mainstream labor movement will support the prison labor strike movement. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO declined to be interviewed, but they have indicated that they view mass incarceration as an employment issue. In April, while touring an apprenticeship program at a prison in Washington State, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “Mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and blighted lives, and the time has come for us to do something about it.”

IWW organizer Del Deluca is hopeful that the broader labor movement will support this effort. With more than two million people in prison, he sees potential in this new path of organizing.

“We could change the direction of history,” he said. “We could change the way our world works.”