A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that roughly two in five–38 percent–of the 24,848 incarcerated people they surveyed across 364 prisons reported a disability of some sort, translating to some 760,000 people with disabilities living behind bars who at greater risk of serving longer, harder sentences and being exploited and abused by prison staff or other incarcerated people, reports Jennifer Sarret in an essay for Sight Magazine. Around a quarter of those surveyed reported having a cognitive disability, such as difficulty remembering or making decisions. A similar proportion reported at some point being told they had attention deficit disorder, and 14 percent were told they had a learning disability. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has also found that people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities are more prevalent in jails – where people are sent immediately after arrest, to await trial or to serve a sentence of one year or less – than prisons.
Jails tend to be associated with what have been called “crimes of survival,” such as shoplifting and loitering. These offenses are linked to unemployed people and people experiencing homelessness–communities in which rates of disabilities are higher. As a result, a disproportionate amount of people with disabilities enter America’s criminal justice system. Rates of these disabilities are even higher among incarcerated women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. This might be related to the fact that women have much higher histories of abuse and trauma, or because they are more willing to report these disabilities. The intellectually disabled are also often targeted for punishment due to symptoms that make adjusting to the rigors of prison and jail increasingly difficult. Needing time to process instructions, particularly in high-stress situations, can be interpreted as obstinacy by staff and officers in charge. Further, being seen as obstinate can lead to disciplinary reports in prison or jail, which could result in added time to someone’s sentence or the removal of certain privileges and even could result in solitary confinement.