Inmates With Disabilities Face Discrimination and Inaccessibility in Prison

During the last 40 years, the U.S. has seen a 500% increase in the prison inmate population — despite the fact there has been an overall decrease in crime. And while some citizens are under the impression that individuals should lose all semblance of rights once they’re behind bars, inmates are very much still entitled to humane facilities and protection from racial segregation and sexual crimes, as well as the receipt of medical care, the right to a hearing, and the assertion of rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Certainly, many prisons have come up short in their enforcement of these rights — particularly when it comes to the ADA. Now, it’s being revealed that prisons all over the nation have engaged in discriminatory practices that leave inmates with disabilities at an even greater disadvantage in a system that’s often interested in anything but justice.

Nationwide, there are 2 million new wheelchair users every year — and that includes those who are serving their time in American jails and prison facilities. But if recent lawsuits are anything to go by, it’s clear that inmates with disabilities face even harsher conditions than their able-bodied peers. Last month, six current and former Maryland inmates filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the prison system there fails to comply with the ADA. The suit cites a specific incident in which an inmate, who is a single-leg amputee, was forced to hop into and out of prison showers with no support and was not allowed to enter the facility in his wheelchair. Furthermore, the suit claims, the facility is not equipped with “handicapped showers, handrails, anti-slip guards, or shower chairs for disabled prisoners.”

These incidents aren’t limited to Maryland. The state of Florida agreed to make prisons more accessible for inmates with disabilities back in 2017, which involved agreeing to a significant settlement with a statewide disability advocacy group to address complaints and map out a compliance timeline. However, it’s clear that Florida still has a long way to go in terms of how they treat inmates with disabilities: one deputy was fired this month for hitting a wheelchair-confined inmate repeatedly in the head.

Even those with temporary disabilities may face unfair treatment. One woman, April Cadena, was denied a wheelchair when she was arrested three days after having surgery to repair a broken tibia.

This is a national problem, as a report by Disability Rights Washington points out. Roughly 31% of inmates in U.S. state prisons report having a physical or cognitive disability, with incarcerated people being three to four times more likely to report having a disability than the rest of the population. Many of those inmates know all too well that neglect and abuse are commonplace. What’s worse, prison staff may see disabilities as a reason to carry out even more extreme disciplinary action. And although more than 2,000 ADA-related lawsuits have been filed against prisons since 1990, inmates rarely win out in the end.

Americans with disabilities have to face ample struggles and instances of inequality as it is, despite the protections provided by the ADA. Sometimes, these disabilities have been with the person since their early developmental years. But when those individuals are convicted of crimes, even non-violent crimes like embezzlement, achieving fair treatment behind bars is a seemingly Sisyphean task.