The ADA @ 30: “Lock ‘Em Up!”

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

When talking about disability let’s acknowledge how wide the subject is. Celebrating the ADA @ 30 let’s reflect on the carceral states of America where jails are the largest psychiatric facilities in the nation.

Two new books highlight this crisis. I recommend “Waiting for an Echo” by Christine Montross and “Decarcerating Disability” by Liat Ben-Moshe.

“Intentionality” is the word of choice when talking about writing—what does the writer want to instill in us? I can’t speak for Montross or Ben-Moshe but their books prove the “school to prison pipeline” is a crisis for Black people and people of color, many of whom are disabled—and yes also for disabled whites. The mentally ill, people with learning disabilities, autists, people struggling with addiction, all are frequently imprisoned rather than being given reasonable treatment and a chance at life.

Ben-Moshe writes: “disability and madness are largely missing from analysis of incarceration and its resistance” which means in turn:

“When disability or madness is present, it is conceived of as a deficit, something in need of correction, medically/psychiatrically or by the correction industry, but not as a nuanced identity from which to understand how to live differently, including reevaluating responses to harm and difference. This is not only a scholarly omission but also a real danger to the lives of those most marginalized, especially when many proposals for reform risk increasing surveillance over those already heavily impacted by carceral sites and logics in the United States.”

One may think of the prison complex in the United States as a collective “unreasonable accommodation” a matter that undermines the broader health of the body politic, for no one gets well in prison. In fact people get worse. Ben-Moshe writes:

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2005, more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem. The reported prevalence of “mental health problems” among the imprisoned seems to vary by race and gender. White inmates appear to have higher rates of reported “mental health problems” than African Americans or Hispanics; 26 however, African Americans, especially men, seem to be labeled “seriously mentally ill” more often than their white counterparts. It is also reported that, in general, incarcerated women have higher rates of “mental health problems” than men. 27 Gender expression that does not match people’s genitals (as this is the main criterion for the sex-based separation that is the prison system) compounds these factors and leads to a psychiatric diagnosis and/or placement in solitary confinement in the name of protection.”

Excerpt From: Liat Ben-Moshe. “Decarcerating Disability.” Apple Books.

Christine Montross, writes of a psychotic patient named Henry who is left untreated and is eventually extracted from his cell and placed in solitary confinement, then adds: “In our nation’s correctional facilities, detainees who become assaultive are typically sent to administrative segregation—a punitive form of solitary confinement known to exacerbate symptoms of mental illness”

We take the sick to jail and make them worse. Thinking of the ADA @ 30 is not, should not be, a matter of fireworks and glib speeches.

Montross: “If these mentally ill detainees become assaultive or are unable to follow police instructions or jail rules, the manifestations of their symptoms lead to harsher punishment, longer periods of incarceration, and lost years of their lives. In precisely this way, our overcrowded correctional facilities become inundated with the psychiatrically ill, straining our prison system and draining money from state coffers.”

It’s hard to celebrate the ADA when our disabled fellow citizens are in the gulags.

It’s almost impossible to celebrate while we imprison adolescents with disabilities and then dehumanize them. Montross describes a meeting with prison administrators:

“We attend a meeting with psychologists, teachers, social workers, correctional officers. We’re given a chance to ask questions.

“What’s the most severe punishment that can be leveraged against a boy held in this facility?” I ask a psychologist.

“He can be sent to segregation,” she says, noting that the practice of solitary confinement exists for incarcerated children just as it does for adults.

“For how long?” I ask.

“Up to a year,” she says.

Take the developing brain of an adolescent. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. Put him in seclusion for a year. He touches no one. Is touched by no one. He yells out, perhaps, or he stays silent, but he interacts with no one. His meals are pushed at him through a slot. We know that isolation changes and damages the adult brain. What about the effects of segregation on the still-developing brain of a child? And a child who presumably has already lacked the foundation for good decision making, has acted with extraordinary impulsivity, has perhaps enacted terrible trauma and perhaps also endured terrible trauma? What then?”

What then, indeed?

Ben-Moshe underscores the prisons are in fact disabling mechanisms: “the prison environment itself is disabling so that even if an individual enters prison without a disability or mental health diagnosis, she is likely to get one—from the sheer trauma of incarceration in enclosed, tight spaces with poor air quality and circulation; to hard labor with toxic conditions and materials; to circulation of drugs and unsanitary needles as well as the spread of infectious diseases, some of which result from environmental toxins related to the sites on which prisons are built; to lack of medical equipment and medication, or at times overmedication. Add to these factors placements in inhumane conditions, such as solitary confinement (which are especially pervasive for gender-nonconforming, trans, and queer or gay incarcerated people, supposedly for their own protection), and the various impairments that come with aging in prison as a result of prolonged sentencing policies, and the debilitating nature of imprisonment cannot be denied. Trauma is incredibly pervasive in carceral settings, and the trigger and disabling cumulative effects of strip searches (especially on those who experienced sexual violence previously, which is the majority of those held in women’s prisoners) leads feminist abolitionists to understand them as state-sponsored violence against women.”

We are a nation that practices severe institutional violence and concerted disablement as matters of policy.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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