Prisons

New Report Highlights Horrific Impact of Solitary Confinement on Inmates with Disabilities

"I don't know what stopped me from beating my head on those bright, white walls."

|

Robin Nelson/ZUMApress/Newscom

The effects of solitary confinement on inmates can be long-lasting and destructive, but they can be even more devastating to inmates with disabilities, according to a new report released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Over the past several years, there has been a growing outcry to limit or abolish the use of solitary confinement, which critics say amounts to torture and can have permanent psychological impacts on inmates. The Obama administration, for instance, banned the use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates in the federal prison system. The ACLU report, "Caged In: Solitary Confinement's Devastating Harm on Prisoner's With Physical Disabilities," sheds light on the unique challenges that inmates with disabilities face in solitary.

"The current and formerly incarcerated people with disabilities who we spoke with described their experiences of enduring extreme isolation for days, months, and even years," the report says. "They shared the pain and humiliation of being left to fend for themselves in solitary confinement without wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, or other necessary accommodations to carry out life's basic daily tasks. Without these vital accommodations, many of them were left without the means to walk, shower, clothe themselves, or even use the toilet."

Despite the passage of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which guarantees equal access and protections to those with disabilities, the report says inmates with disabilities are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for no other reason than a lack of other adequate housing.

One case cited in the report is former Oregon inmate Dean Westwood, who is paralyzed from the chest down and relies on a motorized wheelchair for mobility. Westwood pled guilty in 2014 to Medicaid fraud and tax evasion and was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. During Westwood's sentencing, prosecutors assured the court that Oregon prisons were ADA compliant and had adequate facilities to house him.

Westwood says he was placed in isolation at the infirmary of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon for 22 to 23 hours a day for 17 days. He says the staff were unprepared to deal with his needs, and for the first 48 hours of his imprisonment he was not given his prescribed medications to prevent painful muscle spasms and control his bowels. He ended up soiling himself.

"Shit, I just figured that's how it was," Westwood says in an interview with Reason. "You get thrown in prison, and they can do whatever the fuck they want to you. I suppose I should have known better, but I was just scared and trying to wrap my head around all this. The walls were white cinder block. I don't know if you've ever been inside, but in a small space like that you can physically feel the walls caving in on you. At one point I remember thinking that if I beat my head on this wall really hard, it will either knock me out, or maybe I'd hit it hard enough that I wouldn't wake up. That was constant. To this day I don't know how I got through. I don't know what stopped me from beating my head on those bright, white walls."

He was later transferred to another facility where he says he was isolated in an infirmary with no access to the law library, the rec yard, or any of the programs that offer chances for reduced sentences.

According to the ACLU report, inmates with disabilities placed in solitary, even if for no punitive reason, have little access to the programs and social interaction that inmates in the general population enjoy. And they can often be denied physical therapy and other regimens that keep their bodies from deteriorating further.

Westwood sent a "kite"—prison slang for a written message—to his case manager, asking why he was being kept in isolation. The response he says he eventually received: "We can put you wherever we want, whenever we want."

He was later transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where other inmates act as assistants to those with disabilities.

"Here I am as a level one, the lowest security risk, with level four and fives providing my assistance. Murderers, rapists, and arsonists," Westwood says. "Just because they didn't have accessible housing they jammed me in with criminals way above my security ranking. Then I was vulnerable. I was assaulted by a guy who took a disliking to me. He was down for murder. I took two beatings. When you're caught in the wrong spot, there's no staff around. I was fortunate I lived."

Inmates with disabilities, especially in facilities where they are assigned other inmates as assistants, can become targets. A 2013 report on the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Florida by HEARD, an advocacy group for deaf prisoners, documented numerous allegations of sexual assault, rape, theft, retaliation by staff, and general cruelty against inmates with disabilities.

The Oregon Department of Corrections and the prosecutor in Westwood's case did not immediately return requests for comment.

Westwood's case is only one of many documented by the ACLU in the report. The ACLU located one inmate who said he was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks for not responding to a command he could not hear.

In 2016, a judge ordered Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections to pay a deaf inmate, William Pierce, $70,000 in damages for failing to provide adequate accommodations. Pierce claimed he was not provided with a sign language interpreter and could not communicate with corrections or medical staff. When he persisted in trying to obtain an interpreter, he said he was thrown in solitary confinement as retaliation.

In 2014, Los Angeles County settled a lawsuit brought by disabled inmates who described soiling themselves because the jail bathrooms were not wheelchair accessible and had no grab bars. They also claimed they were given wheelchairs with non-functioning brakes.

And for those with hearing or visual impairments, the ACLU says the profound isolation of solitary confinement can become almost total. Reading and finding inventive ways to communicate with each other are some of the only ways inmates can pass time in solitary, but deaf or blind inmates might have neither.

"Deaf and blind prisoners reported that prison officials failed to provide them with access to hearing aids, Braille materials, certified sign language interpreters, or other auxiliary aids and services that are necessary to facilitate meaningful communication," the report says. "As a result, many prisoners reported being left completely isolated without any ability to communicate with other prisoners, staff, family members, and other visitors."

There is no publicly available data on the number of inmates with disabilities placed in solitary confinement, but the significant percentage of inmates with disabilities in the system overall suggest they are similarly represented in solitary confinement. For example, around 20 percent of Florida state prison inmates have some sort of assistive device or require special accommodations, according to the report. About 1 in 10 inmates in California have a hearing, visual, or mobility-related impairment.

The ACLU recommends that corrections officials ban the placement of inmates with disabilities in solitary for lack of other adequate housing and track the use of solitary for such inmates. It also recommends that the Justice Department audit state prisons to ensure they are ADA compliant.

NEXT: Judge William Pryor, 'No Friend of Criminal Defendants,' Is Said to Top Trump's SCOTUS Short-List

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Solitary confinement is vicious and evil. But if you are unwilling to support the death penalty, how else are prisons supposed to control their inmates? What other than solitary confinement or the death penalty can deter someone who is already facing a long or perhaps lifelong sentence?

    1. Doubly so with disabled persons. The situation is only more complicated and you’ve removed at least one option from the table.

      1. Certainly not to say that disabled people should be executed or executed more frequently but that the options are: Support people with disabilities anywhere/everywhere, carry out equal treatment/punishment under the law, and provide swift and efficient justice; pick two.

    2. The problem with solitary confinement is the same as the one with the death penalty. Even if they are reasonable punishments (and/or methods of protecting other inmates) in some limited instances the state has proven incapable of applying it without being vicious and evil.

      1. I hate to be the one to go here, but the only other option is people literally shooting each other in the streets.

        As a libertarian, I don’t exactly have an issue with that except that it converts an already hard sell into a nigh impossible sell.

        1. The option is people working it out among themselves which ends up involving the strong preying on the week and eventually devolves into a system of blood money where lives are expendable as long as you can pay the price in order to keep the peace. As bad as a state run criminal justice system is, that is much worse.

          1. Either we’re saying essentially the same thing or you have much less faith in humanity than I do.

            1. We are saying the same thing. I was agreeing with you. Sorry that wasn’t clear.

        2. It’s not the only other option. There are ways to segregate problem prisoners without locking them in a confining cinderblock box for 23 hours a day. If you want to go further, there are ways to structure a penal system that is focused rehabilitation and removing violent offenders from the population. The American system is built on an archaic principle of punishing evil souls, and everybody acts all shocked when the result is gangs, drugs, and violence inside.

          1. There are ways to segregate problem prisoners without locking them in a confining cinderblock box for 23 hours a day.L

            We already do that and they prey on each other. it is called Maximum Security. What happens when the violent inmates you have segregated assault a guard or assault each other? What then?

            If you want to go further, there are ways to structure a penal system that is focused rehabilitation and removing violent offenders from the population.

            Sure and that is a good idea but that doesn’t answer the question of how to control and deter violent offenders.

            The American system is built on an archaic principle of punishing evil souls,

            At first it was. Now it is built on the reality that unless you want to go back to a system of corporal punishment or the death penalty, the only way to protect society from criminals is to warehouse them in prisons where they do not have access to the public.

      2. The state is incapable of doing that because people are incapable of doing that. Get rid of the state and you will have vigilante justice and people will be out applying punishments in vicious and evil ways. There is no getting around that. Life sucks.

        1. Get rid of the state and you will have vigilante justice and people will be out applying punishments in vicious and evil ways.

          Keep the state and people — called cops — will be out and other people — called COs — will be in prisons applying punishments in vicious and evil ways.

          If you have the chance, read John Hasnas’s “The Obviousness of Anarchy”

          1. Sounds like it’s time for a little Molinari: “Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud, or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.”

    3. Maybe we should only imprison people that are too dangerous to live in society, and find other means of punishment, deterrence, restitution, and rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders. It won’t make solitary suck less, but at least they’ll deserve it.

      1. This. But we cling to the 19th century notion that prison is supposed to be rehab.

        1. But we some of us cling to the 19th century notion that prison is supposed to be rehab.

          FIFY

          1. That was a royal ‘we’.

      2. I agree. Prison is an awful thing and should not be given lightly. The root of our problem here is that people treat prison like it is an all purpose solution to any problem rather than a really nasty thing that should only be used when there are no other options.

        1. Yep! The problem isn’t that prison, in and of itself, is too harsh. It is that too many people are put there, that don’t belong there.

    4. Oh look, it’s John, handwaving away 100% of the actual content of the post.

      1. Oh look it is a resident troll having nothing to say or add to the conversation.

        1. What do you have to add to the conversation about disabled white-collar criminals sentenced to less than two years in prison?

    5. Yes, it is probably necessary in certain cases. Even with a robust death penalty, not all uncontrollable inmates will have committed capital crimes.

      But the way it is often used now is just disgusting.

      1. I agree completely. It is out of control. But it got out of control because we walked away from the death penalty and decided that solitary is the only way to control prisoners.

        Like I say above, our problem is we have completely lost perspective on how lousy of a solution prison is to a problem and view prison as the preferred option rather than a lousy option to be used in cases where no other options exist.

        1. I have problems with the death penalty, for the usual sort of reasons. But I completely agree about the loss of perspective on prisons. Violent people who prey on others deserve what they get. I have little sympathy for them. But the way people casually think of prison sentences for other kinds of crimes is disturbing. As if a few years in prison is no big deal. Even a few months can really fuck a person up and ruin their life if they had anything going for them. I can’t even imagine how horrible it would be to be facing 5 or 10 or even more years of incarceration.

          1. I got an idea. How about everyone moves off of Long Island and we turn the entire island into a super max prison. We’ll take all of the worst criminals and dump them there and let them do whatever they want to each other. What do you think?

            1. They’d have to stay off the beach in the summer.

            2. This guy might have an opinion about island prisons..
              http://store.steampowered.com/app/426430/

    6. There’s a difference between “you can’t have physical contact with other people” and “you must sit in a windowless room, without any comforts or entertainments, and be completely deprived of any contact, physical or non-physical, with the outside world or other people.” The former is practical, the latter is cruel.

    7. Well, where else do you expect the Sessionasaurus to put all them millions of hopped up dope fiends that’s still out pushin the pots on our playgrounds? You can’t have them near other folks, they’re not good people! They dopin, they rapin, they eatin faces!

    8. I must be misreading your comment. Do you honestly think that solitary or death row (solitary) are the only means to ‘control’ an inmate? JFC, dude, they are people, too. There are prisons where work programs and reward systems result in impressive results with regard to inmate violence and recidivism….even for convicted murders. Solitary should be relegated to the extremely rare circumstance of the ‘criminally insane’.

  2. Be paralyzed from the chest down like a thug, get locked up like a thug.

  3. So a guy is paralyzed from the chest down, and is convicted of Medicare fraud? Obviously a disable person is just as able (and perhaps even more so) to lie, cheat and steal. But, I honestly wonder if there isn’t more to this about how crappy Medicare can be in certain situations. Consider how many people defraud the disability system who have a “bad back” so they can’t work. Oh, mind you, they can play hoops at the park every night. Meanwhile, this guy who actually is disabled is convicted, sent to prison.

    And about the deaf guy. Even if they didn’t provide an interpreter, couldn’t they have carried note pads and just wrote out instructions? Or even just used simple hand signs for basic commands (back-up, hands-up, meal time, etc.) Low or no-cost solutions.

    1. couldn’t they have carried note pads and just wrote out instructions?

      I can kill you with a pen. I have done that many times.

      1. BearOdinson is the Nameless One?

      2. And every time you kill me, I get right back up again.

        1. That’s just because of your antisemitism. My Mossad training is powerless against it.

          1. Mazal Tov! You figured out my secret! Of course, someone may to have to tell my wife and our kids (I am the only Germanic Neopagan I know of that has a Jewish wife).

            We celebrated Yulnakkah this year!

            1. But how do you deal with Samhaween?

        2. +1 Chumbawumba song

    2. Even if they didn’t provide an interpreter, couldn’t they have carried note pads and just wrote out instructions? Or even just used simple hand signs for basic commands (back-up, hands-up, meal time, etc.) Low or no-cost solutions.

      The guy was illiterate as well. However, the issue wasn’t exactly that he couldn’t communicate but that the prison either didn’t assess him as being unable to communicate accurately or didn’t care about it’s own requirements for solving his communication issues. It gets back to what John was saying, these people shouldn’t or can’t be trusted to ‘properly’ imprison people in the first place.

      1. I read the article, and it said he didn’t understand a form he signed when he got sent to solitary. Though, you may know more details than are noted in that one article. If he truly was illiterate, than perhaps sign language is one of the only solutions. And I do agree completely, as the judge said, that the case really hinged on the fact that they didn’t assess his needs on day one. If there is a procedure in place to deal with deaf inmates, and they literally just didn’t give a shit, than screw the lot of them. And the fact that the guy was sentenced to 60 days for domestic assault, and ended up in solitary is pretty fucked up.

        Even if they didn’t they should go through everything with an interpreter, etc. I am pretty sure, they easily could have done something to help this guy to get by for 60 days. I was trying to point out that not only were they assholes, they were stupid and lazy, too. 😉

  4. Westwood says he was placed in isolation at the infirmary of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon for 22 to 23 hours a day for 17 days. He says the staff were unprepared to deal with his needs, and for the first 48 hours of his imprisonment he was not given his prescribed medications to prevent painful muscle spasms and control his bowels. He ended up soiling himself.

    Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, chief.

  5. As a corrections officer, I have no idea how a correctional facility can function without segregation units. I have worked in seg units for the better part of 6 years. Everyone should know that inmates/detainees housed in these units earned it one way or the other. This article only highlighted one side of the story. Officers are generally outnumbered in housing units about 35-1, and solitary confinement is the only thing keeping many of these inmates from breaking the rules. Inmates have the right to live in a safe environment without violence occurring unpunished. Most of the individuals housed in segregation are there for violence towards other inmates or staff.

    1. Most? Maybe. All? No. It seems that too often it’s a matter of being overcrowded or having a prisoner that you’re not set up to handle, but not for disciplinary reasons.

      1. Solitary is not used to remedy overcrowding. These units require single person cells. Why would an overcrowded institution resort to single person cells? In fact, the opposite occurs when the count gets high. People are usually let out of solitary early to make room leaving only the most violent in segregation.

  6. Defending the ADA? I’ll pass.

  7. I can see what your saying… Raymond `s article is surprising, last week I bought a top of the range Acura from making $4608 this-past/month and-a little over, $10,000 this past month . with-out any question its the easiest work I’ve ever had . I began this five months/ago and almost straight away startad bringin in minimum $82 per-hr
    . Read more on this site…..
    ==================
    http://www.homejobs7.com

  8. The best part of work is from comfort of your house and get paid from $100-$2k each week. Start today and have your first cash at the end of this week. For more info Check the following link

    +_+_+_+_+_+_+_+_+ http://www.homejobs7.com

  9. just before I saw the receipt that said $7527 , I accept that my mom in-law woz like actualey making money in there spare time from there pretty old laptop. . there aunt had bean doing this for less than twentey months and at present cleared the depts on there appartment and bourt a great new Citro?n 2CV . look here…….
    Clik This Link inYour Browser.
    ================> http://www.homejobs7.com

  10. My best friend’s wife makes Bucks75/hr on the laptop. She has been unemployed for eight months but last month her income with big fat bonus was over Bucks9000 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
    Read more on this site
    ================== http://www.homejobs7.com

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.