Prisoners with disabilities lack ‘scaffolding for success’

According to a new report, more than 750,000 people with disabilities are currently imprisoned in the United States. Advocates say that children born with physical or intellectual disabilities are far more likely to end up in prison than their able-bodied peers, due in part to a lack of support systems. Judy Woodruff talks to Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi from RespectAbility for more on the problem.

Read the Full Transcript


    Now to our series on Broken Justice.

    Tonight, we look at a part of the criminal justice system that tends to get less attention, prisoners with disabilities.

    Judy recorded this conversation yesterday.


    A new report breaks down public data to outline the scope of the issue.

    It says more than 750,000 people with disabilities are behind bars in the U.S., including more than half-a-million with cognitive impairments, at least 250,000 with mobility problems, and 140,000 who are blind or have vision loss.

    The report was issued by a nonprofit disability group known as RespectAbility, which also hopes to cast a spotlight on what happens to individuals after they leave prison.

    Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president and CEO of this group, and she joins me now.

    Welcome to the program.


    Thank you for having me.


    Why was this important for you to focus on?


    Well, this was a great injustice, because what you predominantly see are individuals of color, people who are African-Americans, Hispanic, new immigrants, whose disabilities were never appropriately diagnosed or addressed.

    I myself am somebody with a disability. And so I know it can be harder to get ahead, but if you are doubly disadvantaged, if you have multiple minority status, the school-to-prison pipeline is almost a direct ticket.


    I know I was just looking at some census data this afternoon. People with disabilities make up something like 19, 20 percent of population overall.

    But your report finds they are over 30 percent of people behind bars in this country. How did that happen?


    It really happens when young people who have dyslexia or executive function disorder don't get the diagnosis, don't get the accommodations that they need and they deserve in school.

    They wind up getting in trouble, getting suspended, dropping out of school. They're not graduating high school and they're getting in trouble very early. So you can really see the problem only — already almost predict the outcome when somebody is in the third grade, if these issues are not addressed.


    Is one of your arguments that they were wrongly convicted?


    In some cases, yes, because, in some cases, what has happened is they have an intellectual disability that they don't understand the charges that are against them, and they have not gotten the legal — the legal support that they need.

    And, in some cases, they're very, very smart, and they might be deaf. There's all kinds of situation where individuals who are hearing-impaired are not given the right language supports with ASL, American Sign Language, so they can defend themselves.

    So, we have real injustice for people who are in jail, and there are people who committed crimes because their path to success wasn't in place.


    To what extent are our jails, our city jails, county jails, and state and federal prisons equipped to deal with these issues?


    They are not even remotely equipped to deal. And most of it is not equipment. It's actually training. It's awareness.

    For example, somebody who lived in a house with lead paint poisoning, somebody like Freddie Gray, who is a case we're all familiar with, he didn't have the ability to follow multistep instructions.

    And so, in school, people thought he had behavior differences, when it was really learning differences. And so he was suspended, and then he didn't complete school, and then he was in and out of the correction system.

    And then when somebody like that goes into incarceration, again, lots of complicated instructions, and before you know it, they're in solitary confinement.


    To what extent are either legislators, are federal — are the Congress looking at this issue, addressing it? You and I were just speaking about efforts right now to look at prison reform. But you were saying disabilities are not a part of that.


    Unfortunately, the data just has not been known.

    It's sort of like the housing crisis, where all the data was sitting there hidden in plain sight, but nobody was looking at it. It's really this explosive bomb of information that no one was looking at.

    So the new legislation that is being proposed does not address any of these issues at all. By the way, I do support these prison reforms. There are people who really shouldn't be in the prison system because of their long sentences for nonviolent offenses.

    But you have got to have a pathway to get a job, because the way things are now, these individuals who leave incarceration, they're not literate, and they wind up back in prison.


    And it is — as we said a moment, it is part of the focus of this report, what these individuals with disabilities face once, if and when they are released.



    What you see is that three-quarters of individuals who are released from incarceration — and, by the way, that's 600,000 people every single year — within five years, three-quarters of them are back in jail. The system is broken, and it absolutely must be fixed.


    How — Jennifer Mizrahi, how do you — how do you even begin to get your arms around this? What are some steps that you argue need to be taken immediately and in the near term?


    Well, in terms of thinking about when people reenter the community, you need to be ready to have scaffolding for success, so that people can get a job, so that they can get their medication.

    People with significant mental health differences who need medication to keep from having psychotic episodes leave incarceration with no health care, and therefore no medicine, and then it's not surprising that they're doing something that's putting them back in jail.

    So there's basic things on the exit. There's things you need to do for accommodations while they're incarcerated, especially around literacy and training, to help them build those skills. And then there is to ensure that the prison pipeline doesn't continue, starting really very much with early intervention, particularly in minority communities, to make sure they're getting the tools that they need to succeed.


    How should people think — I know there's been a lot of, of course, publicity about crimes of all sort that get attention in the news media all the time. Public — people read about it and they hear about it.

    How do they understand and weigh the difference between a disability that is causing someone to do something to commit a crime, and one that where there's will involved and a disability, and it's something for which one has to serve time, must be held accountable?


    Well, a crime clearly is something that harms another person. And so if you're harming people, then there has to be something to be done.

    Now, in many cases, you can go to a mental health treatment program or an addiction program or a work program. The alternative sentencing is really important, because America has only 5 percent of the world's population, but we have 25 percent of the world's incarcerated prisoners.

    It's incredible; 2.2 million Americans are currently incarcerated.


    Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, with the group RespectAbility, we thank you very much for talking to us.


    Thank you very much for your focus on these issues.

Listen to this Segment