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Excerpted from: Jamelia N. Morgan, Caged In: the Devastating Harms of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners with Physical Disabilities, 24 Buffalo Human Rights Law Review 81 (2017-2018) (420 Footnotes)(Full Document)


Jamelia N MorganRobert Dinkins is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair. Prison officials confiscated his wheelchair when he was placed in solitary confinement, “forcing him to crawl” around on the ground and “eat [his] meals on the floor.”

Damon Wheeler is hard of hearing. He alleged that he was unable to access his hearing aids for 86 days after prison officials confiscated them prior to transferring him into the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a form of solitary confinement.

Abdul Malik Muhammad is blind. He alleged that he was kept in solitary confinement for six weeks in part because prison officials did not know where to place him. During those six weeks, he was denied access to showers, fresh clothes, recreation, telephone calls, and visitation.

J.M. is a deaf prisoner. He reported that he was held in solitary confinement for two weeks for failing to respond to an oral command spoken by some corrections officials behind his back, which he could not hear.

Solitary confinement of more than 15 days can amount to torture. Locked in cells roughly the size of a regular parking space, prisoners are confined alone in their cells for approximately 22 hours per day or more in a maximum-security environment with little to no human interaction or access to natural light. Most of life's daily activities--from dressing, to grooming, to using the toilet--take place within the confines of a small cell. On rare occasions when prisoners are permitted to leave their cells--for example, to go to the exercise yard--the prisoner must be escorted by prison security staff, often while shackled with chains tied tightly around the ankles, waist, and wrists. Many are strip-searched every time they leave their cells. Prisoners are typically unable to participate in work opportunities or rehabilitative programming, such as educational courses or vocational training programs.

Given these highly restrictive and isolating conditions, it is not surprising that solitary confinement is known to inflict acute and devastating mental and physical harms upon prisoners. Yet, despite the harms caused, corrections officials continue to overuse solitary confinement in American prisons and jails. On any given day, approximately 80,000 to 100,000 persons are held in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. Some languish in isolation for months, years, or even decades. This continued overuse of solitary confinement is an affront to one of the foundational, professed goals of incarceration: rehabilitation. Solitary confinement prevents prisoners from participating in rehabilitative programming. Instead, solitary confinement ruins lives, often leaving those subjected to its harms irrevocably damaged.

Recent advocacy focused on ending solitary confinement has sought to roll back more than four decades of “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies, which have led to mass incarceration, hyper-incarceration, and the overemphasis on punitive rather than rehabilitative approaches to crime and punishment. The movement to end solitary confinement has had tremendous success in recent years--and calls for reform have come from the highest offices in the land, including both President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Legislative campaigns and litigation at the state and local levels have been successful in ending indefinite placements in solitary confinement; enacting state laws and policies that limit the use of solitary confinement for vulnerable groups, such as youth, pregnant women, and persons with mental disabilities; and garnering national attention on the practice through human rights reports and congressional hearings. Perhaps the most poignant message has come from prisoners themselves at California's Pelican Bay State Prison where thousands participated in a third hunger strike, lasting sixty days, beginning in July 2013 to protest the long-term isolation of prisoners.

Despite these successes, considerably less attention has been paid to one of the most vulnerable groups harmed by the pervasive use of solitary confinement: people with physical disabilities. People with physical disabilities are often placed into solitary confinement for the same reasons as those who do not have disabilities: they were deemed a risk to the safety and security of the corrections institution; they violated a rule; they were identified as a member of a vulnerable group and separated from the general population; or they have a communicable disease. But for people with physical disabilities, some are placed into solitary confinement for reasons that have nothing to do with the safety and security of the corrections institution. Prisoners and detainees with disabilities may be placed into solitary confinement because there are no accessible housing units in which to hold them, as in the case of prisoners who use wheelchairs. Some have even been punished with solitary confinement for violating rules that are caused by their disabilities.

The placement of people with disabilities into solitary confinement is deeply troubling. People with physical disabilities constitute one of the most vulnerable groups living in isolation in prisons and jails across America. Although all prisoners and detainees rely on staff to provide for their basic human needs--nutritious food, clean water, medical care, and mental health treatment--people with physical disabilities rely on corrections staff to an even greater extent. People with physical disabilities not only rely on corrections staff to meet their basic human needs, but they also may require additional support to perform everyday tasks--be it support in eating meals, taking showers, getting dressed, or attending medical appointments. In addition, prisoners and detainees with physical disabilities typically require accommodations that will provide them with equal access to programs, services, and activities offered within the corrections facility. This may include providing them with assistive devices (e.g., canes, wheelchairs, hearing aids, etc.) and services (e.g., sign language interpreters, assistance with dressing, etc.), and/or modifying a set program or curriculum.

In solitary confinement, all are vulnerable to the devastating psychological and physical effects of near total isolation, including social and sensory deprivation. But, for those with physical disabilities, the harmful effects of solitary confinements may be even more harmful. As explained in greater detail below, people with physical disabilities have unique medical and mental health needs, and many are denied regular access to necessary care while in solitary confinement. Limited access to health care can exacerbate some existing physical disabilities and limited to no access to regular physical activity--whether exercise or other activity--can also be detrimental.

Federal law, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) enacted in 1990, establishes comprehensive protections for people with disabilities, including protections from discrimination on the basis of disability and guarantees of equal access. Yet, despite these robust protections, the needs of people with disabilities are not being met in prisons and jails nationwide. Although it has been over twenty-five years since the passage of the ADA, recent litigation and media reports show that by failing to remove architectural barriers, prison officials continue to deny people with disabilities equal access to critical areas in corrections facilities, including housing units, medical centers, recreation yards, law libraries, and visitation rooms. Even where states have facilities that provide equal access to prisoners with physical disabilities, these facilities have become woefully overcrowded and understaffed. In addition, recent court complaints allege that corrections systems continue to deny people with disabilities equal access to prison programs, services, and activities, including educational and vocational courses and telephone privileges.

Beyond this, the barriers preventing equal access to prison programs, services, and activities are heightened for those persons with physical disabilities held in solitary confinement. When held in solitary confinement, prisoners may be prohibited from participating in programming, including educational and vocational programs, and may be outright denied visitation or telephone privileges. However, even in those corrections systems where prisoners in solitary confinement are offered access to programming, people with physical disabilities are effectively barred from participating due to architectural barriers that can prevent them from accessing the physical location where the programming takes place. Moreover, people with sensory disabilities such as deafness or blindness are often effectively excluded from programming in cases where the materials are not provided in a format that is accessible to them. Locked away and locked out of opportunities to engage in any constructive activity offered by programming, the sensory and social deprivation experienced by these prisoners is magnified. As a result, they languish behind bars in a state of idleness, devoid of both mental stimulation and constructive activity, left in an environment of near total isolation.

This article draws from interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated people with disabilities, disability rights advocates, prisoners' rights advocates, medical experts, legal scholars, and correctional officials, and examines the conditions of confinement, harms, and challenges facing prisoners with physical disabilities in solitary confinement. In addition, this article fills some of the gaps in data and where possible builds on existing data to provide a snapshot into (1) the number of people with physical disabilities; (2) the number of prisoners with physical disabilities in solitary confinement; and (3) the volume of grievances filed by prisoners with disabilities in ten state prison systems: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Finally, the article closes by discussing the available legal protections and by offering a set of recommendations to federal, state, and local officials and policymakers to guide reforms for prisoners with physical disabilities in solitary confinement.