In 2015, a hearing-impaired man named Abreham Zemedagegehu spent six weeks in jail in Arlington County, Virginia, for a crime he didn’t commit. A man had accused Zemedagegehu of stealing an Ipad, but the accuser changed his mind and took the charge back. Zemedagegehu never got to speak in his own defense, though, because the police who’d arrested him and the jail that held him never provided him with an interpreter.
The jailed Zemedagegehu, a native speaker of Amharic, couldn’t communicate not only his innocence, but even his basic needs. He could make no phone calls. He went without the medication he needed for back pain, spent most of his time lying on the floor, and often didn’t eat. Without assistance, he couldn’t hear the meal announcements. Zemedagegehu’s situation as a deaf person in jail, tragic as it was, is not unusual. For one example, jails in Illinois were sued for failing to provide people with hearing problems with a way to detect a ringing fire alarm.
Another struggling person was a young George Floyd. Floyd was brought to Bartlett State Jail in Texas on a charge of armed robbery, though the victim of the crime had identified him with only a “tentative” ID. Floyd spent nearly two years jailed there and maintained his innocence, telling a childhood friend he pled out to avoid the possibility of conviction.
Much of what held Floyd at Bartlett was his skin color. At the time Floyd was jailed, Black people made up 32% of incarcerated Texans, almost three times the number of the Texas Black population. Floyd suffered from depression and claustrophobia, two conditions that spiraled in his time at Bartlett. When police in 2020 tried to take him in, before his murder under the knee of then-officer Derek Chauvin, Floyd cried out “I don’t want to go back to that.” Then, claustrophobic–a condition that had become much worse at Bartlett–Floyd balked at getting in a squad car with blacked-out windows. The rest of this terrible story we know.
We can say with near certainty that any prison will hold a disproportionate number of the Black and Brown, and that it will hold a disproportionate number of people with disabilities. To have a disability, of any race, puts you at higher risk of being jailed in the U.S. Half of the jailed women in our country report having a disability, with 40% of people in prison reporting one overall. In one study, 6.5 percent of incarcerated people are deaf or hearing-impaired, 7.3 percent are blind or have low vision, 9.5 percent have an ambulatory disability. Most jails have little or no means of treating these conditions, so, for example, those who have trouble feeding themselves struggle to eat. Black and Indigenous people live with higher rates of disability than Whites, so it becomes a circular problem, of unmet needs, of victimization and re-victimization.
About 60% of the people with a disability in U.S. prisons have a cognitive or neurodivergent condition. Many of those who end up in jail are simply in psychiatric crisis, and in much of the country our jails and prisons — America’s “new asylums”—house ten times more seriously mentally ill people than hospitals do. Our public health care system is deeply inadequate. Those in crisis may be picked up for shouting, or for physical behavior considered odd. Without mental health resources and staffing, unable to follow hospital standards, jails often put people into solitary confinement.
In 2016, the Public Citizen and Treatment Advocacy center did a comprehensive study of those with psychiatric diagnoses in jail. The group went directly to jail staff to see what kind of treatment options different jails offered for this population. The results were grim. Fewer than half of respondents said their jail was able to offer any mental health treatment at all.
Ninety-five percent of respondents in this study said their jails regularly housed people with mental health issues, but only 21% reported that their jail had any kind of program to support them upon release. And the fact is that being jailed—being confined, scared, having been taken in for no obvious reason—increases psychological stress and therefore symptoms. A person whose problems may have been temporary can end up with symptoms that are ongoing, making it harder and harder for that person to be set free. Bringing in professionals who can handle things differently is not hard. Parts of California use mental health courts, which provide just that. These courts bring in professionals, keep police and jailers out of situations they aren’t equipped to handle, and lower the likelihood that the person who has been arrested will appear in the legal system again.
Not only those in psychiatric crisis, but all the people with a disability who are incarcerated are far more likely to be put in solitary. A comprehensive study carried out by the ACLU in 2015 is titled Caged In: The Devastating Harm of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners with Physical Disabilities. The report lists horror story after horror story. The sensory deprivation of a person who is visually-impaired or hearing-impaired held in a solitary confinement cell the size of a parking space is devastating. People who need wheelchairs or other mobility assistance may find themselves without that assistance lying all day on the cell floor. The ACLU found people who needed help actually eating off that floor.
In addition, many incarcerated people who have a disability find themselves in solitary not because of anything relating to their case or their actions, but simply because jails and prisons aren’t equipped to meet their needs. That ACLU found that one institution kept a visually-impaired person in solitary for six weeks, trying to find a cell they thought could accommodate him. People with hearing problems are sometimes moved to solitary for failing to respond to commands they could not hear. Others are punished for using American Sign Language. Unfamiliar guards interpret the gesturing as threats.
Given the damage of solitary confinement to the human psyche and physical health, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment strongly urged corrections systems to ban solitary confinement beyond fifteen days. Beyond that point, the Special Rapporteur has concluded it can amount to torture. A 2020 study of suicide in prisons and jails supports this: A New York study of suicide in prisons found that the rate of suicides in solitary confinement was five times higher than in the general population, and of these, half were young people in their twenties, and 65% were people of color.
Most Americans want to think of themselves as caring, with a society that protects the most vulnerable. But, unless our governments change their jailing policies, this faith in is wrong. In fact, our most vulnerable end up in jail far too often, and many times for no reason. There they may languish, also for no reason, inside a space too small to roll more than a few times between its walls. And there, many of them become despondent enough to end their lives, or try to. People with disabilities who are incarcerated are likely to be multiply disadvantaged—low income, Black or Brown, as well as disabled. Like Abreham Abreham Zemedagegehu , they may be incarcerated simply because they are unable to communicate with the law enforcement that picks them up.