An always-brutal experience can be even worse for people with disabilities.
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
When Dean Westwood was sentenced to prison in 2014, he wasn't sure what to expect. Convicted of theft and tax evasion related to Medicaid fraud in Oregon, Westwood tells VICE he had no prior contact with the criminal justice system. For Westwood, who admits to his crime and is now 52, the prospect of prison time was nerve-wracking not just because of his lack of experience, but because he's paralyzed from the chest down.
"I was concerned about my rights being violated, but also about my wellbeing as a person with quadriplegia," he recalls.
Westwood was right to be concerned. Initially taken to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, where he was to be assessed before transfer for the remainder of his one-year sentence, Westwood says he was isolated in a cell for 17 days. His only interactions were with corrections officers and medical staff who seemed to have no experience working with quadriplegic inmates.
Vicky Reynolds, a spokesperson for Coffee Creek, confirms Westwood was at the facility for 17 days, and says he was housed in the infirmary for all of them. The cell he was placed in "was not disciplinary," Reynolds explains, though "it might have been that he was in a cell by himself." Westwood, for his part, maintains he experienced similar isolation in the infirmary at the next facility he was transferred to, where he was kept apart from the general population and prevented from participating in programs and using services like the law library available to the general population.
"I'm not sick, I don't have medical issues," Westwood says of the times he felt trapped in the infirmaries. "I have a disability."
Westwood's experience being isolated from the general population is far from unusual for prisoners with physical disabilities, according to a report published Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union. While the psychological harms of solitary confinement have been well-documented—including in a just-concluded VICE project inside an Arizona jail—the new research is the first nationwide look at how isolation impacts prisoners contending with disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and paralysis, according to the ACLU. It offers disturbing insight into just how frequently disabled prisoners like Westwood are confined in tiny cells without human contact, an experience that can be uniquely brutal for them.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act is essentially being ignored in these prison settings," Jamelia Morgan of the ACLU's National Prison Project, the report's author, tells VICE. "The movement to stop solitary [confinement] has been successful over the last few years, and I think people with disabilities should be included in that conversation."
Morgan's report documents the experience of prisoners in ten states. One of her most troubling findings, she says, is that few corrections systems even track or know how many of their inmates have physical disabilities, making it nearly impossible to assess the scope of the problem. The data that does exist suggests the size of the disabled incarcerated population isn't insignificant: In Pennsylvania, nearly one in every 20 state prisoners was identified as blind or low vision or deaf, according to the report. One out of every ten prisoners in California reports a hearing, visual, or mobility-related disability.
The practice of solitary confinement has come under fire across the country in recent years, from state legislatures to Congress to the US Supreme Court to prisons themselves. Studies on long-term isolation have shown an increased risk of suicide and psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia, and panic attacks. And some reports suggest time spent in solitary can increase the likelihood a prisoner will reoffend after release, posing a threat to public safety.
Now Morgan's research adds deleterious physical risks for those with disabilities to that list. Sensory disabilities such as deafness and blindness can be aggravated by isolation, according to the report, and other physical conditions can worsen. In one instance in a Massachusetts prison, a man with a gunshot wound was denied physical therapy while in isolation, worsening his condition. The report also documents instances of denying assistive devices such as canes, hearing aids, and other tools to inmates, or telling them that they can only use them if they agree to be isolated.
"Within solitary, a lot of these therapeutic supports are restricted or denied outright," says Morgan. "This is harm that is easily avoidable."
Much of that harm stems from a lack of education and resources. Without qualified staff, tools, and facilities for tending to the needs of inmates with physical disabilities, many corrections systems seem to rely on solitary confinement as a means of protection from the general population. After being transferred from Coffee Creek to another facility, Westwood says most of his care was administered by prisoner orderlies who didn't understand the needs of a person with quadriplegia.
"I don't think departments of corrections want to violate peoples' rights, they just don't have the resources," he says. "The orderlies tried to do their best but didn't know what the hell they were doing."
Check out James Burns's solitary confinement project.
In Louisiana, Scott Huffman advocates for the rights of deaf prisoners as an interpreter and activist. He is critical of the state's use of inmate interpreters for deaf prisoners, rather than hiring experienced staff—a practice that began after an order was issued by the Department of Justice in response to a complaint filed by a deaf prisoner. Huffman himself spent five years in prison from 2008 to 2013, where he taught himself American Sign Language so he could communicate with incarcerated deaf men. He saw firsthand how a lack of communication with deaf prisoners put them at risk.
While incarcerated, Huffman says he observed corrections officers writing up deaf prisoners for not responding to verbal orders they couldn't hear, a problem documented in other states by the ACLU. Morgan, the report's author, also found that deaf inmates in some states have been disciplined for allegedly throwing gang signs, when in fact they were using sign language. And those write-ups can mean more time in solitary for the most vulnerable behind bars.
"The biggest violator of federal disability laws are our prisons," Huffman says. "Unless we get out there as a community and talk about it, disabled prisoners will continue to get brushed under the rug."
Follow Rebecca McCray on Twitter.