Many disabled people are segregated from society through institutions, nursing homes and psych facilities. While this was far more common in the past, there is still a significant portion of the disabled population that is kept under lock and key.

There are a number of different kinds of institutions:

Training schools and juvenile facilities:

One of the most extreme examples of a juvenile institution is the Alberta Provincial Training School. The court found in Muir v. Alberta that Lelani Muir was:

improperly detained…The particular type of confinement of which Ms Muir was a victim resulted in many travesties to her young person: loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal developmental experiences, loss of civil rights, loss of contact with family and friends, subjection to institutional discipline.

Not only was Ms Muir unlawfully and unethically sterilized, she was subject to countless deprivations and abuses while attending the school. The Provincial Training School, which spearheaded hundreds of sterilizations of its inmates, also abused many of the people there in other ways. Resident-inmates were drugged, beaten, straight-jacketed or put in solitary confinement. According to the Court, Leilani Muir was also forced to eat mush and cleanup after others who were more seriously disabled, including changing the diapers of adults. Residents were also experimented on. At least 15 boys with Down’s Syndrome had had their right testicle removed. The Doctor in charge of the school was running experiments on the testicular tissue.

The abuses at the Alberta Provincial Training School occurred decades ago but there schools that not only operate today but also advertise their abuses.

Psych Institutions
Psychiatric facilities are rumored to be breeding grounds for human experimentation. During the 1950s and 1960s, experiments were preformed on about 100 people at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Quebec. There, according to Don Weitz and Bonnie Burstow in Shrink Resistant: the struggle against psychiatry in Canada, they “were forcibly subjected to an unprecedented combination of psychiatric tortures; regressive electroshock, massive drugging, sensory isolation, prolonged sleep therapy and psychic driving”.

Electro-shock or ECT is one of the most common experiments in psych facilities. Burstow and Weitz state that “[a]fter 50 years of research and practice, the shock doctors tell us they don’t know why zapping a person with electricity ‘works’. They lay no claim to knowledge at all.”

While abuses are extensive in psych facilities, it is far more common for inmates/patients/residents/prisoners to experience more subtle and passive forms of abuse. These abuses can include threats; destruction of property; the prohibition of actions that are natural and normal such as asking questions, being restless, or expressing one’s sexuality; name calling; and, countless other forms of demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment.


While institutions are still far too prevalent in our society and many people who would like to be, and could be, living independently are hindered from doing so as a result of government policy, there have been shifts towards deinstitutionalization in the past decades.

Recognizing the financial expense of keeping people in institutions and, using the outcry from inmate-patients, family, friends and the community over the treatment of disabled people, the government did begin to transition people into out of institutions in the mid 1950’s and this became a large scale endeavor in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

This is from a 1977 US President’s Committee on Mental Retardation report:

The current movement to decrease the number of retarded persons in institutions and to increase the number resident in the community – “deinstitutionalization” – has been promoted on both humanitarian and economic grounds. While there is little disagreement that the traditional institutional patterns of custodial care have been dehumanizing, there is disagreement on the question of economy and the comparative quality of community services presently available.

However, as neo-liberalism and fiscal conservatism swept Canada and the United States, it became obvious that money could indeed be saved if institutions were closed. The way to save money was simple: just close beds in institutions, promise to offer services in the community and don’t deliver on those promises.

The Canadian Senate even said that: “In many cases, deinstitutionalization has been undertaken without the necessary community supports being in place”.

This was because, as Dr. Richard O’Reilly put it: “The solution for fiscal conservatives was simple: as individuals with mental illness don’t vote or complain effectively, they were discharged and hospitals were closed”

When the institution doors swung open, many of inmates adjusted well to their new found freedom and the outside world. Sadly, though, some group homes were not really much different from larger institutions. Often they were geographically isolated in areas far away from other disabled communities or services and institutional mentalities and abuses from staff could still occurred.

And, some people were given no treatment at all. Some people, like a number of people depicted in Pat Capponi’s Upstairs In The Crazy House, she depicts the lives of several people who found that their treatment post deinstitutionalization was far less humane that their institutional treatment. When Capponi was released, she was sent to a private group home in Parkdale, Toronto. There she was subject to living in a freezing cold house with only $18 a month to live on after her room and board were paid. Caponi also describes the situation of a man who spent seventeen years in a psych facility. During the deinstitutionalization period, he was handed “a bus ticket and an address” to the same private group home and sent out the door.

As the neo-liberal agenda continued, there were even more cuts, particularly to social assistance, health care and social housing. In the United States one quarter of welfare recipients ceased getting assistance in the period between 1993 and 1997. In Canada, in 2003 41.3% fewer people were receiving welfare than ten years previously. Beyond people being kicked off of assistance, rates were frozen or slashed in many areas as well. For example, in Ontario, welfare rates were cut by 21.6% in 1995 (a loss of 1/5th of many people’s income) and disability rates were frozen in 1993 which, with inflation, amounted to about a 2% cut a year.

Public funding cuts to health care saw US expenditures on mental health services decrease two-thirds from what it had been 40 years previously. Similar cuts took place in Canada.

While many disabled people, were affected by these cuts, psychiatrized people and psych survivors were the hardest hit. Much of the increases in poverty and homelessness were on their backs. Indeed, during 1980s and 1990s, there was a “visible increase in homelessness” in the US and Canada. By 1999 approximately one third of all homeless people in Toronto were psych survivors or psychiatrized people (this statistic is slightly problematic as living on the streets can and does lead to mental health issues and psychiatrization so it is difficult to say that the lack of funding of community supports led to the increase in homelessness or if low social assistance and lack of accessible housing led to homelessness which then led to psychiatrization or mental health issues).

Deinstitutionalization should have led to greater inclusion, participation and autonomy, but because it was never done with or for the people who were deinstitutionalization it led to many people’s lives getting no better, if not worse.

With incredible amounts of poverty, inadequate housing, and no supports, many people, once they were deinstitutionalized, ended up in prison because the state wanted to control them but didn’t want to put the money into social assistance, housing and community care.

Prisons And The Reinstitutionalization of Disabled People

“At any given moment, 40 percent of all Americans with serious mental illness are estimated to be in jail or prison, comprising from 10 to 30 percent of all inmates” ~ Jane Stewart and Marta Russell

Generally, there is a disproportionate number of disabled people in the prison population. In Canada, nearly 30% or women inmates and 17% of male inmates have Hepatitis C and almost 4% and 2%, respectively, are HIV positive. 30% of prisoners in the US have at least some hearing loss. In all, there is an unknown number of physically disabled and intellectually disabled people in prisons. Some estimates put the population of intellectually disabled people in prisons at as high as 9.5% and in the juvenile population learning disabilities are estimated at 55%.

There are 3 reasons why there are so many disabled people in prisons.

Poverty and Lack of Supports
Many disabled people live in poverty and make wages that are far lower than non-disabled people or scrape by on shamefully low social assistance rates. This coupled with the criminalization of a number of behaviours associated with “mental illness” means that many disabled people find themselves committing ‘crimes’ like steeling food, committing other acts of minor theft, loitering, trespassing, doing sex work and selling drugs, among other things, to make money.

Depending where people live, they could to jail for many, if not all of these ‘offenses’ and for some of them, they could be locked up for years.

Also, poverty means that once someone is arrested, they cannot afford a good lawyer so they have a publicly funded lawyer with a high caseload and very little time.

Disablism in the Judicial System

Lawyers are less likely to spend the amount of time that is actually needed to interview defendants with intellectual disabilities.

The courts have been found to have a tenancy to find that a defendant with an intellectual disability is competent to stand trial when the defendant isn’t because the incompetence is seen as permanent. However, the opposite is true in the case for psychiatrized people because that is often seen to be temporary. But this means that there are intellectually disabled people who are on trial who do not understand what is going on and/or instruct their lawyers.

Further, many judges are known to be racist and sexist and it is fair to assume that there are many judges who are disablist and who actively discriminate against disabled defendants.

Disblism in the Prison Systems
When disabled people go to jail, they are punished twice: once for the crime they were convicted of and once for being disabled.

Stairs and physical access: this could make parts of the prison, which could include the yard, visiting areas, showers, medical facilities, programs, and, likely, half of the beds in the institution unavailable to many physically disabled inmates. Loss of access to these and other areas could make their time harder or compromise their health.

ASL and TTY: many programs are inaccessible and day-to-day functioning in prison very difficult due to lack of intrepreters. Further, deaf inmates can be cut-off from the outside world even more if prison telephones do not necessarily provide TTY or TDD services.

Personal support workers: attendant care is largely unavailable to disabled inmates who need it. Guards are left to do basic support tasks, which they aren’t trained to do. Some inmates go without meals and are not allowed to use the toilet.

Other prisoners: Disabled prisoners may experience overt disablism. They also may have a difficult time defending themselves because of their disabilities.

Personal aid devices: mobility and assistive devices are often taken away from people when they are arrested (this includes prosthetics, canes, crutches, braces, etc.) and it can take a long time, and even a court hearing to get them back. Also if something breaks, it can be difficult or impossible to get it repaired or replaced.

Medical treatment: prisons in Canada and the United States are required to provide a basic level of medical care, but this is not always the case. In the Canadian federal prison system, 52% of it’s health care facilities failed to be accredited in 2006 because they did not meet basic requirements. Procedural decisions – like choosing to make medication rounds 3 times a day (when many people need medications 4 times a day, delivering sleeping pills at 5pm or choosing not to test diabetic prisoners’ insulin can have major, even deadly, impacts on people’s lives.

Medical wards: disabled inmates may also be isolated in medical wards or units specifically for the sick and disabled which can their access to programs and recreational facilities.

Segregation units: these are sometimes used to isolate people with allergies or people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who prison officials don’t know how to deal with.

Maximum security: some people, in some areas, are automatically put in maximum security because of their disabilities. For instance, rather than run programs for people with intellectual disabilities at every security level, the system can save money by putting everyone with an intellectual disability into maximum security which means that there are people who would otherwise be at minimum security who are forced to be in maximum security.

All of these things work to inhibit disabled prisoners’ ability to participate in programs. Prison programs could include high school or college courses, training programs, addiction recovery programs or anything else made available to inmates by administration or outside agencies. Prison programming can help pass the time inside, obtain parole and secure employment upon release.

If you do not participate in prison programming it is much harder to show the parole board that you can take on responsibility and that you deserve to be let out of prison.

Disabled people do harder time, get less out of their time and do more time.

So called deisntitutionalization was not about deinstitutionalization whatsoever, it was about moving people from more expensive and more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons. People left institutions which were designed like prisons to go to prisons which are increasingly looking like institutions because of who is ending up there.

In-text links in this post::

Muir v. Alberta

Don Weitz

Bonnie Burstow

Shrink Resistant: the Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada

Pat Capponi

Upstairs In The Crazy House


Stewart and Russell article

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