Locked Down and Forgotten

root - Posted on 01 January 2000

by Leroy Moore

It has been said that California and the rest of the nation are in an economic boom and many organizations and systems are feeding off of this boom. With help from legislators and governors, the prison system is getting fat from this booming economy. Many studies say that California operates the largest and most costly prison system in the nation. Activists like Angela Davis have staged protests and campaigns against the prison system and the political arena in California for the overwhelming number of people of color in the prison system. But, the voices of disabled prisoners have been left out or have been muddled.

Since the birth of the Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization (DAMO) in 1998, we have received many letters from disabled inmates begging for public recognition of the deadly environment that they are forced to live in. The latest letter came from the state of one of the candidates for US President, Texas. Closer to home, in February the Bayview newspaper had a letter from a disabled African American inmate. In both cases the inmates talked about the physical abuse they have experienced from guards or other inmates and how they are denied service and medical care. The inmates have looked for help for their cases but have not received any assistance.

Texas is known for its tough criminal system and has led the country in executions of inmates on death row. According to the December 19, 1999 issue of the Boston Globe, the number of prisoners in Texas has grown from 40,000 to 150,000 since Bush took office! He has also overseen the executions of 113 death row inmates, more than any other governor in any state has since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Many inmates on death row in Texas are or were inmates with mental illness and with developmental disabilities. To date, Bush has not spoken publicly about the Johnny Paul Penry case. Last Spring Bush voted against a bill that would ban executions of the mentally retarded. All of this is shocking because Bush’s father is remembered in the disabled community as the father of the American Disability Act of 1990.

Texas, like California, has poured money into the prison system. According to the Houston Chronicle of March 25, 2000 five years ago the Texas prison system completed the largest construction program in the nation’s history, but now top prison officials say they need as much as $3 billion more to fix up aging units. While the prison systems nationwide are enjoying the booming economy, there has been progressive work on the status of disabled prisoners. In the Houston Chronicle of February 16, 2000 the Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard testimony as they began to study the impact of mentally ill inmates on Texas prisoners and jails.

In 1998 Senator Paul Weelston (D), of Minnesota toured the privately run prisons and found conditions deplorable. Since receiving many allegations of the abuse of mentally disabled youth, Senator Weelston has introduced legislation designed to make sure youngsters with mental disabilities are not improperly locked away, and to end the mistreatment of those already behind bars. Weelston wants to set aside $2.5 billion over five years to help better train jail staff about mental illness, screen out youngsters with mental disorders before they are sent to prison, and build new facilities to house non-violent offenders with mental disabilities. Still, their voices have not reached mainstream mass media.

Although California prisons have been forced by a class action suit, Armstrong Vs. Pete Wilson in 1994, to follow the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, not discriminate against prisoners, DAMO’s prison files have been overflowing with stories of physical brutality. A 1996 survey by California state prison officials showed that at least 1,375 of the state’s 142,000 inmates are blind or deaf, use wheelchairs or need canes or other devices to walk. If we include prisoners with mental disabilities, HIV, mental illness and cancer, the number is overwhelming. The letter that appeared in the Bayview newspaper was from a disabled African American between and he described his reality in a local jail where he has been beaten and overmedicated. He says that he speaks for disabled people everywhere because, "We’re getting stepped on and not represented in a proper manner when we have legal issues that need to be addressed." This statement was echoed in the San Francisco Chronicle of March 14, 2000 by Senator Burton who blocked a Governor Davis appointee to the State Parole Board because the Board violated the ADA. According to Burton and Judge Claudia of Oakland, there have been some prisoners who used wheelchairs who have had to crawl up stairs to get to their hearings.

While California’s prisons are still trying to get in compliance with the ADA, Rogelio, a blind paraplegic man described the physical brutality he lives under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In his letter to DAMO, he details his experience as a disabled inmate. Rogelio was punched out of his wheelchair by a guard because he told the guard not to read his legal letters. When Rogelio was on the floor, two officers continued to kick and hit him causing fractures on his left elbow and on his right wrist. Because of these injuries Rogelio could not get back into his wheelchair. The officers did help offenders with mental disabilities. And in California a few disability organizations have been putting the heat on the correction system with help from Senator Burton.

In California, Jean Stewart, Founder of Disabled Prisoners Justice Fund and author has received letters from disabled prisoners for years and is in the process of writing a book on disabled prisoners. She has visited disabled prisoners and helped them get the service and legal representation they need. Disabled Prisoners Justice Fund is a legal defense fund established to protect the rights and meet the legal needs of prisoners with disabilities.

Disabled prisoners are only now getting visibility because of people and grass roots organizations like Jean Stewart and her Disabled Prisoners Justice Fund, Senator Burton, Senator Weelston, and Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization. Despite these voices though, cases of physical abuse and lack of access to prison programs and medical care are still common in a system that is booming under this current economy.

The rights of disabled prisoners is an unpopular issue in the political arena, prison systems, and the traditional disabled organizations but we can’t turn our heads; because if we don’t act now you or I could be caught in the booming prison system.

By Leroy F. Moore
Founder of Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization (DAMO)


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