Irish Penal Reform Trust

US: 'Caged In', Solitary Confinement’s devastating harm on prisoners with physical disabilities

13th January 2017

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has published a report on the particular negative effects that solitary confinement poses to prisoners with physical disabilities.

Current and formerly incarcerated people with disabilities were interviewed on their experiences of solitary confinement and the effects that this had on them. 

Interviewees reported pain and humiliation resulting from the experience of isolation. They reported that physical aids such as crutches, wheelchairs and hearing aids were often denied to them while they were in solitary confinement. This resulted in a lack of ability to communicate or to carry out basic daily tasks such as cleaning themselves and using toilet facilities.

The report notes that prisoners with spinal or other mobility disabilities are more adversely affected, in terms of physical health, than other prisoners. The limitations on the ability to exercise which often occur alongside solitary confinement pose a risk of muscular deterioration for these prisoners. Prisoners who are deaf or blind are also more adversely affected by the isolation of solitary confinement, due to sensory deprivation compounding the experience. 

The report highlights the fact that prisoners with disabilities are often placed in solitary confinement for reasons of convenience rather than a penological purpose. Lack of available cells which can accommodate disabled prisoners are one of the reasons for their placement in such conditions. 

The report collected a number of statistics on disabilities and solitary confinement in US prisons:

  • 1 in 10 prisoners in California have a hearing, visual and/or mobility disability;
  • 1 in 5 prisoners in Florida have some form of assistive device or special pass;
  • 1 in 20 prisoners in Illinois are blind and/or deaf/hard of hearing;
  • Approximately 80,000-100,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the US;
  • 32% of prison detainees and 40% of jail detainees have at least one physical or cognitive disability;
  • The proportion of the population with a disability outside of prisons is far lower at 10.9%.

The report includes a number of recommendations:

  • Prisoners should not be placed in solitary confinement where that placement will worsen their disability;
  • Prisoners should not be placed in solitary confinement as a result of a lack of accessible cells;
  • Prisoners should be granted their physical aids while in solitary unless there is a valid security reason not;
  • Data should be established to track and monitor incarcerated persons with a disability in the prison system;
  • Legislation should be enacted for the tracking of incarcerated persons with a disability in the prison system, to increase funding for disability advocacy, and to limit the use of solitary confinement.

To read the full report click here

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