Incarceration and Institutionalization: Disability and Imprisonment

This is the speech that I gave for Living the Limit: Criminalization, Incarceration and the Law. It was a book launch for Love and Struggle: My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond by David Gilbert and Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade. I started by thanking both of them and the organizers.

I have been asked to speak about disability, disabled people and incarceration. I want to first acknowledge that we are on Indigenous land, not as a token effort, but out of both respect and the understanding that when we talk about prison and when we talk about disability that First Nations people are over represented in both populations both as a consequence and as a part of the ongoing colonial process.

I also want to acknowledge that I am disabled and I am white and both of these things inform my experiences and understanding of this issue. I am coming to this panel as an activist and an ally not as someone who is bringing forward demands about prison justice from my own experience.

When I talk about disability, I define it as a political label used to marginalize people who are considered abnormal, deviant, and/or under or unproductive. Disability is a political category, not a biological one and this is why who is classified as disabled has shifted over time. If I were giving this speech in the 1910s I would likely be talking about women, racialized people, poor people, gay, lesbian queer and trans people because, at the time, they were seen to be disabled. All of these groups were seen to be intellectually, or physically, inferior – and often all 3.

Just because I made a distinction between people who would be categorized as disabled 100 years ago and now does not mean that those groups are not over represented within disabled communities as a whole. Most disabled people are racialized, are women and/or are poor. When I talk about disabled people, please remember that most of us have intersecting oppressions that inform our labels and our experiences of disability.

Just to give you an idea about rates of disability in Canada: estimates of the number of federal prisoners who are considered to have psychiatric disabilities are as high as 25%. HIV/AIDS transmission rates are 10 times higher in prisons than in the general population with almost 4% of women and 2% of men being HIV positive. And, 20-30% of criminalized people are intellectually disabled. But, in addition to prisons, there are also institutions which hold primarily intellectually and psychiatrically disabled people against their will. But, this isn’t to erase the many physically disabled people who are forced into nursing homes or other involuntary institutions.

To give you a little background: mass incarceration of undesirables entered a new era in the mid to late 1800s with the entrenchment of eugenic values. Eugenics is the ideology that promotes the breeding of the ‘fit’ (so, rich and middle-class, white people) and discouraged the reproduction of the ‘unfit’ or marginalized people, largely through segregation and/or sterilization. Eugenics was seen as a biological solution to social problems – for if you want to eliminate poverty, get rid of poor people.

Physical removal of disabled people became, from the eugenic perspective, a social necessity in order to save the white race from degeneration, including disability and inter-racial mixing – prison and institution populations swelled. The distinction between the two was often ambiguous. Institutions were designed like prisons both architecturally and functionally.

Fast forward to the 1970s. The language of eugenics has fallen out of favour but the act of incarcerating marginalized people continues on mass. However, by this time, deinstitutionalization of institutions that held disabled people was well under way. Pychiatric hospitals and institutions for physically and/or intellectually disabled people were downsized and people were moved into the community. This happened on a massive scale, for example, Since 1970, Canada has eliminated 50,000 psychiatric beds.

There were many promises made about how people in institutions would be provided support. But in reality, while some people did get support and some people thrived with or without support, these institutions were shutdown to save money and little resources were made available to people who were deinstitutionalized. To be clear, I am against prisons and incarceration in all of their forms, including institutions, however, it is completely unacceptable to take a person who has been in an institution for a year or five or twenty and hand them a couple of bucks and a bus ticket and say good luck.

Then more cuts came. In 1995, Ontario works, or welfare, was cut by 21.6%. More people became homeless, user fees were implemented for programming that had previously been free and then, in 1998, panhandling and squeegeeing were criminalized in Ontario.

By 1999 approximately one third of all homeless people in Toronto were psych survivors or psychiatrized people. Over 1/4 of psychiatrized people had inadequate housing in 2006.

At each step of the way deinstitutionalization acted as a doorway to reinstitutionalization in the prison system for people who didn’t fit or were ‘unfit.’ People slept on the streets, stole food and other things, loitered, trespassed, did sex work and sold drugs, used drugs and committed welfare fraud, among other things, to make money and survive. Depending where one lived, they could go to jail for many if not all of these so-called crimes, some of which could result in imprisonment for many years.

Thus, the neo-liberal deinstitutionalization was really about moving people from more expensive and supposedly more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons.

My point in this is that prisons and institutions are interrelated – they both target marginalized communities and are tools of social control. It is integral for people who work on prison issues and who concern themselves with social justice to take up justice issues for disabled people in prisons and institutions. There is no easy separation between the two. It is also problematic for disability rights organizers to claim that there is a distinction between institutions that incarcerate people for what they do ie. commit crimes and those that incarcerate people for who they are ie. are disabled – that distinction simply doesn’t hold up and works to perpetuate the oppression of racialized and poor communities.

Psychiatrized and intellectually disabled people are disproportionately incarcerated in the prison system today (and this is likely the case for physically disabled people but there is a lack of good research on this). This may well be the case for physical disability but there simply isn’t a lot of research about disability in Canadian prisons.

The primary reasons for over-representation are tri-fold:

1. systemic discrimination which leads to a lack of employment opportunities available and the inadequacy of income and other supports

2. the disableism in the judicial system which makes it difficult for disabled people to get adequate representation and a fair trial;

3. the fact that many disabled people face greater barriers to getting parole so they are held in prison longer.

Now I want to talk a bit about what the experiences are for disabled people in prison. In doing this, I want to be clear that I think prison is a horrible and unjust experience for everyone and I am not minimizing that by highlighting disabled people’s experiences. And, please keep in mind when I talk about disabled people in prison that prison populations are disproportionately disabled and that these numbers are going to increase dramatically with Omnibus legislation that the Tories are trying to implement.

There are a lot of ways that disabled people can be profoundly impacted by disablism in the prison system. Here are a few:

    • many disabled people will be put into medical or administrative segregation which can mean, among other things: no television, restricted phone access, no programming, no interaction with other people unless they are guards or, occasionally, cell-mates, restricted yard access, restricted shower and laundry access, restricted or no library or book access.
    • Assistive devices will likely be taken away from people so if somebody needs a cane, wrist braces, back brace, etc. generally speaking they just won’t have access to them. Or if they require equipment like a sleep apnoea machine, they will not have access to it.
    • People can be put in a higher security stream to save money on accessibility, For example, if there are 5 blind prisoners, 1 in maximum security, 1 in medium security and 3 in minimum security, in order to offer programming to all of the prisoners, they would all be kept in maximum security. So, in this example, there are 4 prisoners who would have had more privilege who don’t, specifically because they are disabled
    • In fact, the federal “Custody Rating Scale” and provincial “Level of Supervision Inventory” explicitly bases criteria for security streaming disability implying that disabled people are inherently dangerous.
    • Lack of attendant care – which may mean having to wait hours to go to the bathroom or not going at all.
    • Lack of language interpretation services, including ASL
      prison doctors can overrule anything a doctor on the outside orders so accommodations or medical needs can simply be disregarded.
    • Medication is distributed arbitrarily. If the prison nurse does rounds 3 times a day, you get your medication 3 times a day even if you need it 5 times a day.
      And, if you are disabled and you want to visit someone you love who is in prison don’t count on being accommodated, particularly if you use a wheelchair.When I said that the numbers of disabled people will increase in prisons with the new Omnibus bill, one of the reasons for this is that the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences will lead to an increase in the prison populations over all but that coupled with getting rid of house arrest for a number of offences means that many disabled people who would have otherwise been sentenced to their homes because of accessibility issues, attendant care needs and/or complex medical needs will find themselves in prisons.People, particularly disabled people, will likely do longer time. The Corrections and Conditional Release Act Bill C-39, doesn’t talk about rehabilitation or reintegration anymore, only public safety. What does this mean? Among other things, cuts to programming for prisoners. At the same time, the new legislation requires prisoners to fulfill the terms of their corrections plans before they are released but there may not be programming available for people to do this and if you are disabled and programing isn’t accessible, it will be even tougher. Fundamentally, it will be harder for people to get parole.Also There will be more powers to punish inmates for “bad behaviour” which means that for people who are psychiatrized or are intellectually disabled, people could be facing these punishments on a daily basis (not that they aren’t now) and it could be used to deny them parole.For these reasons, as well as specific attacks on First Nations and immigrant communities, and its regressive nature as a whole, this law is dangerous and could be devastating to marginalized communities. So, in the short term it is important that we fight the Omnibus Bill and ensure that marginalized people and their demands, including disabled people, are a part of this fight. Also in the short term, come on Friday, March 16 at noon to College and Bay and take action against more austerity measures – more cuts to social programs and demand decent income, housing and pubic services for all. In the medium-term we have to build bridges between what have often been disparate movements: disability justice and prison justice, and ensure that disabled people and our demands are incorporated into anti-prison organizing. We also have to recognize how poverty, disablism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy and heterosexism all interlock and we have to combat all of these things in order to defeat the systems that incarcerate certain bodies and privilege others. And, Ultimately, we need to fight for a just society in which all of us are accommodated and have the opportunity to thrive. And I have said this many times, but it is nevertheless true, when I say we have to fight, I mean it. We cannot simply ask for change, we have to demand it and we have to create the conditions to make it happen. And we have to Fight to Win and fight until we win but we can win and we will win.

In-text links used in this post:

Love and Struggle: My Life in the SDS, the Weather Underground and Beyond

Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law