People with disabilities suffer extreme abuse by prison-industrial complex

Disabilities. Some people are born with them; others acquire them as they grow older. Unless one is wealthy or has excellent insurance, these disabilities can often be difficult to diagnose and treat.  

But if one is a disabled person, particularly a person of color, or queer or an immigrant and is incarcerated, not only can life be hell behind the razor wire, but incarceration can be a death sentence.

The Prison Policy Initiative states: “People with disabilities are overrepresented at all stages of the criminal legal system, from arresting cops to jails and prisons to probation and parole.  While cognitive disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and learning disorders impact about one-fourth of incarcerated people, visual, hearing and ambulatory disabilities are common, and individuals with these disabilities are often overlooked and subject to inhumane treatment.” (prisonpolicy.org/research/disability/)

Here are some facts from Prison Policy Initiative:

  • 40% of state prisoners have a disability.
  • 50% of women in state prisons are disabled. 
  • 23% of people on parole or probation have disabilities.
  • Between 1/3 and 1/2 of people killed by law enforcement have a disability.
  • Children with disabilities are 400% more likely to be arrested in elementary school.  
  • 25% of people in state prison took special education classes.
  • Almost half of jails and prisons do not offer any special education classes. 

Tens of thousands of people incarcerated in jails and prisons throughout the United States have one or more communication disabilities, a term that describes persons who are visually or aurally disabled, speech disabled or otherwise disabled in ways that affect communication. 

Incarceration is not easy for anyone, but the isolation and inflexibility of incarceration can be especially challenging, dangerous and further disabling for persons with disabilities, according to a report entitled “Effective Communication with Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Blind, and Low Vision Incarcerated People.”  It was published in the “Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice” at the University of Iowa College of Law.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002, in Atkins vs. Virginia, that people with intellectual disabilities are constitutionally barred from receiving the death penalty. But the Supreme Court did not define intellectual disability and left it up to individual states to enforce their decision. The medical community has, in fact, established clinical criteria for intellectual disability, but a number of states have circumvented the top court’s ruling by adopting a more narrow definition.

Executions are legal lynchings

Willie James Pye faces execution March 20, 2024.

Georgia has not executed anyone in over four years, but Willie James Pye is scheduled for execution on March 20. Pye has undisputed signs of intellectual disability, diagnosed with an IQ of 68 and a history of learning difficulties. His case is typical of many people incarcerated on death rows in the U.S.  

Pye’s trial attorney only spent around 150 hours on his case, including the actual trial. Usually, thousands of hours are necessary for effective legal representation in capital murder cases.

Because of doing a minimal investigation, the attorney did not discover evidence of Pye’s traumatic upbringing and intellectual disability. Pye grew up experiencing near-constant physical and emotional abuse, extreme parental neglect, endangerment and abject poverty. He battled severe depressive episodes and reported hearing voices prior to the killing. However, his mental disabilities did not prevent his receiving the death sentence.

The National Disability Rights Network studies have found that 65% to 70% of youth in the so-called justice system meet the criteria for a disability, a rate that is more than three times higher than that of the general population. Youth with disabilities are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates. Also, at least 75% of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced traumatic victimization, leaving them at risk for mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder. (ndrn.org/resource/orphanages-now-this-updated/) 

Due to what is known in the legal world as “evolving standards of decency,” the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty as well as a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for those under 18. But these incarcerated youth could die in prison before they are paroled.

When disabled people are detained in jails awaiting trial or transfer to a medical facility, they are denied access to medical care, which worsens existing health problems. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “This can be life threatening or even fatal: the top cause of death in local jails is suicide, which occurs in jail at much higher rates than in the general U.S. population.”

People with mental health disabilities on death row

Syed Rabbani

In 1988, Syed Rabbini, on death row in Texas, challenged the constitutionality of his death

sentence. Somehow this appeal was lost for decades until 2022, when the District Clerk’s office in Harris County (Houston) discovered it and forwarded it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Since then, the district attorney has dropped the death sentence in Rabbani’s case, so he will now be confined with a life sentence with the possibility of parole. 

Rabbani is seriously mentally ill and has many other medical conditions that have left him in a vegetative state since early 2022 — conditions that attorneys say were ignored by the prison system staff for decades, including untreated seizures and diabetes. Prison staff have repeatedly recommended Rabbani be transferred to hospice care since early 2022, but he was said to be ineligible for such a transfer, because he was serving a death sentence — the sentence now ruled to be unconstitutional!

Attorney Ben Solff said: “He is confined to a prison bed in probably the most disgusting prison circumstance I’ve ever seen. In a court hearing last November, he recalled seeing soiled bed pads on the floor and mold in the toilet when he first visited Rabbani in spring of 2023.

Woolff added:  “Continued confinement for Mr. Rabbani amounts to torture. This case is a stain on the criminal legal system.” (texastribune.org, Nov. 14, 2023)

Wolff urged Lori Chambers Gray, a judge of Texas 262nd District Court,  to recommend Rabbani be transferred to a hospice, then paroled and released to the care of his family in Bangladesh. She said she was open to hospice and would review the full case record and consider accepting the attorney’s recommendation of parole to his family. In November 2023, Rabbini was removed from death row, but he remains incarcerated.

Courts take decades to overturn ableist, illegal death sentences

In September 2023, a federal court ruled that Texas cannot execute Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill man who has been repeatedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. Panetti has been on death row since 1995. He represented himself at his 1995 trial, wearing a purple cowboy suit and giving rambling presentations in his defense. He attempted to subpoena former President John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ, Anne Bancroft and hundreds of other “witnesses.” It is unexplainable how the judge allowed this kind of a trial in his courtroom. 

Panetti had been repeatedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and found to be severely disabled from the age of 20. In the 1980s he began describing a delusion that he was battling Satan, and he buried his family’s furniture in the backyard to rid their home of the devil. Before allegedly killing his in-laws in 1992, Panetti had been hospitalized 14 times for psychotic behavior.

It is hard to believe that it took decades for the courts to find that this disabled man was so mentally ill that he should not be executed. He obviously needed serious mental health care and not incarceration or any involvement with the criminal legal system.

Andre Thomas was set to be exe­cu­ted last April 5, 2023, in Texas, despite suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness so acute that he cut out both of his eyes and ate one, claim­ing that it was nec­es­sary to pre­vent the gov­ern­ment from hear­ing his thoughts. He received a stay of execution. 

Maurie Levin, an attorney for Thomas, said: “ He is not competent to be executed, lacking a rational understanding of the State’s reason for his execution. … Mr. Thomas is one of the most mentally ill prisoners in Texas history, having gouged out both of his eyes and eaten one of them. He has endured a profound and lifelong mental illness. … Guiding this blind psychotic man to the gurney for execution offends our sense of humanity and serves no legitimate purpose.”

On March 7, 2023, the same day that Thomas’s execution date was withdrawn, Texas executed Gary Green. Green’s attorneys had argued that he was intellectually disabled and that he had schizoaffective disorder. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center:  “79% of the people executed last year in 2023 had at least one of the following impairments: serious mental illness, brain injury, developmental brain damage or an IQ in the range considered intellectually disabled, and/or chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect and/or abuse. One-third or eight of the 24 people executed had several disabilities. At least three prisoners were under the age of 20 at the time of their crimes.”

No accommodations for disabilities

In Texas, when male death row prisoners need to be transported off the prison unit for medical appointments or court appearances, they go in a van. But the van is not disability accessible. Guards tell the prisoners to get inside any way they can. So those with mobility issues are left behind!

Incarcerated people that this reporter visits and corresponds with have reported things that seem horribly cruel. For example, one friend has been without shoes for seven years, because the ones he was given will not go on his feet, and those sold in the commissary do not fit his wide feet. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because he is diabetic, he is covered for the right to obtain special shoes. Another person who has been without teeth for years is worried that pushing for false teeth might result in an execution date being scheduled. 

The oldest man on death row in Texas, Carl Buntion, was executed despite the fact that he was almost blind and could not complete daily functions without a wheelchair. He had liver disease and other physical disabilities, yet he was murdered in Huntsville on April 21, 2022. He had kept in touch with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement throughout his years on death row.

Another friend, Jamie McKoskey, who was executed in 2013, could barely walk as a result of slipping on a wet floor while in a Houston jail. This fall injured one of his knees and caused him constant pain. The prison guards complained about providing a wheelchair to him for going to shower or see visitors. When he lifted his pant leg during a visit, this visitor saw a red, swollen knee the size of a small watermelon. 

During one prison visit, this visitor found out that the person next to me was visiting a mentally ill man named Marcus. My friend told me that Marcus was sometimes gassed at visitation, because he wouldn’t get up when his visits were over. Sure enough, the guards cleared us all out of the room, because when they told Marcus his time was up, he said, “I want to go home. I’m not leaving here unless I can go home.” As we stood out in a hallway, Marcus as well as all prisoners out for a visit were gassed. He was then dragged out of the visitation room and returned to his cell. 

Because all men on death row in Texas are permanently housed in solitary confinement, many have developed mental illnesses as well as physical problems. A friend told me he was keeping his sanity by having an imaginary friend to talk with. Others say that living with no natural light has given them vision issues.

With every interaction between the criminal legal system and disabled people, it is obvious that this system does not respect the needs or rights of people with disabilities. Disabled people must not be treated by courts and prisons as people in a criminal crisis. They should be viewed with a community health approach and treated with dignity and respect. 

Until prisons are abolished and all people can live a life with all their needs met, revolutionaries and activists must fight for prisoners’ rights, including for the rights of disabled people as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Nothing less than dignity and respect for all!

Gloria Rubac is an organizer with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.

Gloria Rubac

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Gloria Rubac

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