Prison Is Even Worse When You Have a Disability Like Autism


From The Marshall Project: “The prison environment—with its loud, unpredictable noises, bright lights, unpleasant odors, complicated social dynamics and often byzantine bureaucracy—would be difficult for anyone to navigate, but experts say that it’s particularly challenging for autistic people and people with similar disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act—signed into law 30 years ago this summer—mandates that people with physical and developmental disorders receive equal access to programs and services provided by public institutions, including correctional facilities. But advocates for people with developmental disabilities have long argued that all too often, prisons do not fulfill that promise.

One reason may be that many states don’t adequately identify prisoners with developmental disorders. The Marshall Project sent questions to all 50 state corrections departments asking whether and how they screen prisoners for developmental or intellectual disabilities. Of the 38 agencies that responded, 25 reported using screening protocols that several mental health and legal experts said don’t meet professional standards. Five states said they don’t screen for developmental disabilities at all.

When developmentally disabled prisoners go unidentified, they are even less likely to receive services they are entitled to under federal law—such as help understanding prison rules or obtaining medications. That loss of assistance leaves them vulnerable to medical misdiagnosis, isolation in solitary confinement, denial of legal and educational opportunities, sexual abuse, and bullying, prisoner advocates and relatives say.

‘It mirrors or echoes what goes on in society. People with disabilities are often hidden and not seen,’ said Susan Politt, a supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy agency. But behind bars, the situation can be even more dire. ‘They get out in worse condition than when they go in,’ she said.”

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