February 15, 2022

Disability: The Challenge of Prison Life

The prison environment is challenging for anyone to navigate, but it’s particularly challenging for people with a disability. Sadly, nearly two in every five prisoners living in a state or federal prison have reported a disability. Cognitive disability was the most common disability reported by prison and jail inmates, and a growing number of prisoners have serious mental health problems such as depression.

Cognitive disability is the most reported disability among prisoners

Nearly one in every four prisoners live with a cognitive disability behind bars. A cognitive disability affects mental tasks such as problem-solving, reading, and paying attention. Prisoners with a cognitive disability are at a greater risk of serving longer, harder sentences and being abused by prison staff and other prisoners.

A key issue for people with cognitive disability is that they frequently get confused, and confusion in prison can lead to danger and violence. When given verbal instructions by a prison officer, they need time to process the information, especially in the high-stress context of the prison environment. As these inmates need extra time to process instructions, prison officers may interpret the delayed response as stubbornness or lack of cooperation. This can trigger a prison disciplinary report, resulting in more time added to the prisoner’s sentence or the loss of certain privileges.

Having a cognitive disability also affects a person’s ability to do mental tasks like problem-solving, and prisoners may struggle to communicate their needs to prison staff creating a significant barrier between them.

The real struggle for prisoners with depression is the disconnect from family and friends

The prison environment can be highly damaging to a person’s mental health. A 2015 study by the University of Manchester showed that the top mental health illness prisoners face is depression. While prisoners with depression face many challenges, what frustrates them most is being disconnected from their friends and family. A 2018 University of Georgia study showed that inmates incarcerated 50 miles or more from home experience higher levels of depression. This sense of isolation has increased since the pandemic started in 2020.

Prisoners have no control over their day-to-day lives, leading to a feeling of helplessness, worsening their condition. High levels of overcrowding mean inmates must spend more time in their cells with nothing to do, and subsequently, their depression worsens. Limited opportunity for positive activity such as going to education or doing any activities with others, dramatically increasing mental health problems. The World Health Organization lists factors in prisons that harm mental health, including overcrowding, violence, enforced solitude, lack of privacy, and lack of activity.

The third most common disability prisoners report is a physical disability

A physical disability is any physical condition that significantly impacts major life activities. Common physical disabilities reported by prisoners include the inability to walk or get around places, deafness, and vision impairment.

One of the biggest challenges for prisoners with physical disability is that prisons have not been designed for people with limited mobility. Therefore, it is challenging for these prisoners to get to places like the library, dining halls, or medical facilities. As a result, inmates miss meals, miss out on access to books and learning opportunities, and may miss out on many other social activities in prison.

Many prisoners also reported having a hearing disability which makes it difficult to communicate with the people around them. However, this is not the biggest challenge they face. In most prisons in the United States, deaf people rely on a machine developed in 1960 to communicate in writing with their friends and family on the outside.

Can prison be a better experience for people with disabilities?

While prisoners face many hardships in prison, governments worldwide are stepping up and trying to make life in prison a lot better for disabled prisoners. In the United States, the Justice Department has an increased focus on improving prisons with an aim to reduce recidivism. To achieve their goal, state and federal prisons have provided training for prison officers to help them identify inmates with a disability and to connect with them.

The Justice Department has launched a tablet-based pilot program for inmates to learn and get an education while in prison. The tablet-based pilot program helps redress inherent inequality as many accessibility issues can be easily addressed by digital technology. Examples include the ability to communicate with sign language via video call or to access written content through a text to speech function, and through audio books. Access to personal devices in cell enables inmates (including those with a disability), to develop marketable job skills for use when they return to society.

A joint effort between governments and technology providers could really improve the lives of people with a disability in prison, reducing inequality and enabling better outcomes for all.

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