I admit, I kind of procrastinated with this post because it’s a frustrating and discouraging topic. Yet, current news trends show it is true. One in three adults in America’s prisons have a disability, and estimates show the total number of PWDs in America’s prisons may be as high as 70%. However, these PWDs don’t generally have visible disabilities. PWDs who are sent to jail or prison often have psychiatric disabilities such as bipolar disorder or learning difficulties such as dyslexia. In some ways, that makes the current situation even worse.
So, why are PWDs with these psychiatric and other disabilities being sent to jail or prison? A recent article on Disability Scoop states it’s often because of poor service in special education, the lack of highly qualified special education teachers, and the lack of mental health care, particularly in states, towns, or schools that struggle to maintain services for all their students and citizens. For example, the boy featured in the article titled “For Many with Disabilities, Special Education Leads to Jail,” is from Mississippi. Mississippi has been consistently ranked as one of the worst states for quality disability services in America.
Twelve-year-old Cody, a resident of Grenada, MS, was sent to a youth mental facility two hours away from his home after he “lost his temper” in an argument with a classmate and hit several teachers. I’m not excusing that behavior; a child who strikes out at adults must be disciplined. However, I question whether the discipline was warranted or appropriate for a couple of reasons:
-It was said that Cody, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the time, was sent to this mental health facility because he “lost his temper.” When kids without disabilities lose their tempers, do we send them to mental health facilities or jail? Let me tell you–I’ve seen and heard of temporarily able-bodied children hitting teachers and calling them dreadful names, and nobody locked those kids up.
-Cody was called to youth court “three times in four months after the incident.” As a result, he missed a gratuitous amount of school. He was not even allowed to return to school after these proceedings. Thus, he became one of thousands of students with disabilities for which “education is minimal or non-existent” after they enter the justice system, despite laws that we think protect the right to an education for PWDs.
The article goes on to state other reasons why a student with a disability and/or in special education might end up in the justice system. For example, it’s said that students with learning disabilities may go down this road because they learn to dislike school, so they act up. But why are they acting up? Often, it’s because they don’t have adequate or appropriate services, because they’re not treated with dignity and respect, and because it’s been drummed into them that learning disability = no significant future. Come on, people. Whatever happened to a free, appropriate, public education? I think it’s gone out the window, and the result is, more kids in special, segregated schools or learning environments, in residential facilities, and locked up. If in fact these people do receive an education of any kind once they enter the criminal system, it’s sub-par, and they emerge from the system “far behind peers without disabilities.” And what happens when an ex-inmate doesn’t have the education, skills, and dignity to function in society? Right–you get a repeat offender.
Again, none of this is to excuse dangerous or threatening behavior from PWDs. As with the temporarily able-bodied population, sometimes this happens and it needs to be dealt with. However, I find that in the case of Cody and others like him, the main reason for the involvement of the criminal system is an underserved and misunderstood, very real, disability. That needs to stop, because it’s trampling on the civil rights and basic dignities of these people, just as it would be trampling on civil rights for a cop to say, “Well, he was a black guy in a white neighborhood and wouldn’t be there unless he was looking for trouble.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you wouldn’t do it to a person without a disability, why are you doing it to someone who has one? In other words, is losing your temper justification for being sent to a mental facility and indefinitely kicked out of school?
I’m going to provide the link to the Disability Scoop article below for those who want more information. If you have questions or comments, you know where to find me.