Disability and the prison system

Peter Collins

There’s a saying among prisoners: if you don’t have a disability going into prison, you’re probably leaving with one. 

Disability justice and prisoner justice advocates often call prisons the new asylums. Canada has long history of institutionalizing disabled people in asylums, institutions for the deaf or blind, and psychiatric facilities. In these institutions, people were subjected to severe abuse and neglect. While asylums no longer exist in the form they once did, Canada continues to warehouse disabled people today in long-term care homes, group homes, psychiatric facilities, and prisons – which further disable people.

Prisons often remove prisoners’ assistive devices and medications – or use them as a reason to put an individual in solitary confinement. Kitten Keyes, an Indigenous and disabled prisoner, was made to sleep on the floor of her cell because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible, and she could not transfer herself to the bunk. She was unable to manoeuvre to the toilet without grab bars and was forced to defecate onherself when no one would help her. Gregory Allen was allowed his wheelchair, but at the expense of being placed in solitary confinement for 412 days, well beyond the 15-consecutive-day limit the United Nations uses to distinguish segregation from torture.

The fear of being put into extended segregation keeps prisoners from disclosing mental health issues; I myself didn’t disclose any of my psychiatric history, having heard stories of how people with mental illness were treated in prison both on the range and in solitary. Another common way prisons disable people is by withholding people’s medications or assistive devices like knee braces or eyeglasses – even when they came in with them. This is something I saw first-hand while inside.

For the past year, I’ve been working with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario on their Prison Project to support racialized, disabled prisoners in Ontario. We run support lines for prisoners to help them connect to people outside, work to amplify their experiences, and help support them in organizing collective demands for things like access to medical care.

I spoke at length to some of the prisoners involved in the project about being disabled and incarcerated. Below are some excerpts from my conversations with Andy,* Nash,* Jalen,* Marcus,* and Mason,* edited for length and clarity. They all chose to use pseudonyms for privacy and safety. 


My disability is that my left arm has been amputated from the clavicle. I’ve been in custody for five and a half years.

I remember one time I was in the back of a car [that was pulled over] and I’m just sitting and an officer was like, “Hey, where’s your arm?” I had like, four, five, or six officers pull their weapons on me and the passenger that was in the car with me and he had to scream “he only has one arm.” Then [the police made] it some type of joke to try to figure out the best way to handcuff me. 

I asked for a medical mattress. It took 14 months to get medical to apply for one. I don’t even complain about it because no one listens, or then I face reprisals.

Somebody I’m acquainted with died recently at Maplehurst. He complained and complained and complained of pains in [his] stomach. A Black man, he was never taken seriously. Then one day he was in his cell, he didn’t walk away, he died in his cell. 

Nash, 25

I have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was traumatized as a kid and it just caused me to grow up to be kind of a loner. I had trouble trying to fit in. When I started interacting with the law, it’s just been a constant cycle of coming in and out of jail. The longest I ever lasted [outside] was eight months. 

I’m just trying to do what I can to stay on the straight and narrow so that I can see my son again. I keep trying to see the psychiatrist here but the nurses are not taking me seriously. They say I wasn’t taking my medication on the outside so they’re not going to prescribe them to me here at the jail. My depression is a lot worse. 

I’m also not taking anything for PTSD right now, and it’s just getting out of hand. I’m starting a lot of fights and getting into more trouble than I should be. I start shaking or I break something. I’ll be reading a book that belongs to somebody and then I’ll accidentally rip it. And they’ll say “What’s wrong with you, man? We paid for that.” Like, I’m sorry, I just had
a flashback.

Jalen, 34

I have PTSD and depression. I’ve been in and out of jail since I was 18.

It’s a little rough. If you ask for help, they think that you’re either pill-seeking or you’re trying to manipulate the court process. They’ll put you in segregation, where your lights are on 24 hours a day. If you’re on suicide watch, you’re put in a gown, you sleep with no bed, you’re given finger foods with no spoons, you’re not allowed to have books or paper or anything in your cell. It makes people scared to say anything if they need help. There are guys with head injuries [who] aren’t getting proper help. 

If you have any kind of disability, [the prison places] you in a certain range and that’s how you’re categorized. The COs [corrections officers] call us waterheads. The police are the exact same way. They’ll call you a retard, they won’t read you your rights. They’ll be like, “Well, you don’t understand what we’re saying.” I’m really hyper and they’ll ask, “What are you on?” They’ll approach with their weapon out. It’s like, I’m on my knees. I’m on the ground. Why are you jumping on my head? [They say:] “Why are you resisting?” I’m not resisting. I just can’t stay still.  [Prison has] made my PTSD really bad. I’ve got a lot of trust issues now. I suffer from depression.

I’ve been arrested where cops don’t even call me by my name, [they call] me a spic or an Indian. They take extra time to drag me through the mud, you know. “Strip him well because he might have drugs on him” or “his mom used to do this back in the day. We know who his mom is, she comes from Colombia. We’ll maybe check the house for drugs.” 

I’ve had friends overdose on drugs. They’re not white. The police officer waits 10 minutes for the fentanyl to take full effect. He kicks away all of the Narcan, lets him die on the floor in the hallway. Tells everybody to go in their apartment. You know. It’s the police that are killing these kids. Stuff is being covered up because they’re Indigenous.

It feels like [the system is] trying to keep [us] in. Like they don’t want coloured people or Indigenous people out. And people with mental disabilities? Fuck no. They can just put us away and say, “Oh, they’re gone. Now they’re under the rug. You know, let’s hope they kill themselves in there. Let’s hope that they kill each other in there.” I’ve tried to get help.
I’ve asked for help. All prison staff do is give me enough rope to hang myself with.

Marcus, 24 

I have anxiety and PTSD. I was a functioning alcoholic – like, I was actually working two jobs before I got picked up. I’m just a guy who tries to do my best, not only for myself, but for my daughter.

I was a functioning alcoholic and had to go cold turkey [in prison], which was pretty rough and pretty scary. The nurse gave me a Gatorade the first week; other than that, they just kind of, like, told me to suffer it out. If it wasn’t for my alcoholism, I wouldn’t be here. Every time I was picked up and charged, I was under the influence.  I brought it up in Kenora [jail], I wanted to talk to a psychiatrist. They just waved it off and said that I was a young, healthy man.

All the times I was picked up and put in the drunk tank in Kenora, they’re definitely a lot more physical than they had to be. I was never one to put up a hard time when I got arrested, never ran, but more often than not as soon as they got the cuffs on they just tossed me around.

Mason, 24

I have schizophrenia. It’s like seeing in a distorted way; things don’t seem normal. I’m a musician. I rap, like street-style rap. I do it out loud, as loud as I can because I want my voice to be heard. I like to help people on the streets as best as I can, even if I’m down to my last $20 of ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program] money. I understand what it’s like being on the streets and having an addiction.

It’s like they don’t want to help people like us. Like when I’m freaking out on the streets, people just stare at me and call the cops and then the cops detain me. It’s frustrating. When I’m incarcerated it’s kind of hard for me to handle my schizophrenia in a positive way. The range is an area where it’s really loud. I start to get frustrated and overwhelmed and I need quiet time after [being there]. And when I take quiet time, I get stuck in [my head] and I get lost and I have a hard time letting it out in a positive way. If I bottle up [my emotions],  then I lash out and start screaming my head off and I have a hard time catching my breath and I just black out. I can’t handle it.

Disability justice requires prison abolition

There’s very little data on disability among prisoners incarcerated in Canada. But according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice survey, 38 per cent of state and federal prisoners in the U.S. report being disabled. 

It’s not a coincidence that so many prisoners are disabled or become disabled while incarcerated – it’s by design. Everything about prisons disables the people inside. Prisons continue to hold people in segregation despite knowing its impacts on the human psyche, refuse to meaningfully address the mental health or addictions of prisoners, have poor sound insulation exposing prisoners to non-stop noise, and keep the lights on 24 hours a day in dry cells. Many prisons are overcrowded, infested with mould, and have poor air ventilation. They limit prisoners’ ability to exercise and spend time outside. Prisoners are disconnected from their support networks through expensive phone systems, visit restrictions, and surveyed mail that correctional officers sometimes read aloud.

While they may claim to be rehabilitative, prisons serve only to warehouse and punish, often while failing to provide prisoners with basic medical care or meaningful opportunities to address the root causes of criminalization. While well-meaning individuals often advocate for prison reform – such as building bigger prisons to ease overcrowding or hiring more medical staff – these reformist calls are frequently used to reinforce the existence of prisons and justify criminalizing and imprisoning more people. These reforms move us further from a future of compassion, accountability, and care.

I support all prisoners’ calls for access to medical care and accommodation to address their immediate needs. But there is no prison that treats people in a dignified way. Prison abolition and the decarceration of all people from institutions, including prisons, psychiatric facilities, and long-term care homes, is the only path forward.

Like Andy says, “I can be doing so much more, you know? The lack of opportunities and resources, it can have an effect on you. If you’re not going to nurture the people and take care of needs and figure out why they’re doing these things, these cycles will never end.”

Trish Mills is a white, disabled anarchist who has been incarcerated, supported others through incarceration and the legal system, and spent the last year working on a prisoner disability justice project with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. The project is abolitionist and provides concrete support to prisoners and amplifies the voices of disabled Black, Indigenous, and racialized prisoners. 

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