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ACLU Report Details Damaging Effects of Solitary Confinement on Disabled Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

A January 2017 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) examined the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners with physical disabilities, based upon interviews with disabled prisoners who were “locked in cages the size of a regular parking space.” The report described some of the challenges “faced by people with disabilities in correctional settings, such as lack of access to proper medical and mental health care, as well as rehabilitative therapy, programming, visitation, and other necessities.”

In addition to interviews with current and former prisoners, the ACLU consulted with attorneys, disability rights advocates, a service provider that works in the corrections system, current and former correctional staff, and public records obtained from state Departments of Corrections. Ten jurisdictions provided information, though many states had no methodology for collecting data on disabled prisoners housed in solitary.

According to the report, “for prisoners with physical disabilities, solitary confinement imposes additional harms” that prevent them from receiving the “regular physical therapy, exercise, and access to proper prescription medications to maintain a healthy existence.” As a result, disabled prisoners suffer muscle deterioration as well as mental suffering caused by being isolated from other people for up to 22 hours a day. Blind and deaf prisoners face other challenges due to their placement in solitary.

Solitary confinement is so damaging to prisoners’ physical and mental health that the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has sought to limit solitary to 15 days or less, finding that longer terms in segregation are tantamount to torture.

Despite that fact, the report noted that “Prisoners with disabilities are placed in solitary confinement even when it serves no penological purpose,” sometimes due to a lack of available general population beds that can accommodate them. Unfortunately, it is difficult to measure the extent of the problem because “there is no publicly available data on the number of prisoners with disabilities in solitary confinement.”

The ACLU report offered several recommendations. Correctional facilities should provide “all accommodations, including assistive devices and auxiliary aids, to prisoners with physical disabilities who are held in solitary confinement” unless an immediate security threat is documented. Additionally, corrections officials should be required to institute or improve data collection to help track disabled prisoners in solitary.

Finally, the ACLU encouraged the U.S. Department of Justice to audit facilities for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and recommended that Congress strongly consider passing the Solitary Confinement Reform Act (S.3432), a bill introduced in September 2016 that would place restrictions on the Bureau of Prisons’ use of solitary – including for prisoners with mental or physical disabilities. 


Sources: “Caged In: The Devastating Harms of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners with Physical Disabilities,” ACLU (Feb. 2017);