The Need for Disability Inclusion in Criminal Justice Reform

July 5, 2016 | Alexa Maltby

At the Prayer Vigil for Sentencing Reform, Craig Deroche of the Prison Fellowship said, “every person in there is created in the image of God and deserves our support”. I believe, every person, regardless of their crime, is created in the image of God. I believe every person deserves a fighting chance to have a fair and just sentence. Every person that goes to trial is granted a jury of their peers to make judgments on their individual case.

Unfortunately, this is not what is happening today, especially for those with psychiatric disabilities. Mr. Leo Marino, an accomplished woodworker, was imprisoned at Bridgewater State Hospital.  This is a prison that is supposed to provide a therapeutic, healing space that is run by the Department of Corrections instead of the Department of Mental Health.  Mr. Marino was a victim of the lack of mental health treatment in the American prison system.  During his last week of life, Mr. Marino was placed in the Intensive Treatment Unit (ITU), which was in direct contradiction with his clinical needs because of his previous suicide attempts.  He was under direct supervision of five guards, including one that was specially trained.  Despite the amount of supervision, the officer managed to disregard clinician instructions and patient history.  Before his last stay in ITU, Mr. Marino made two previous suicide attempts by ingesting excess toilet paper.  Mr. Marino obtained a significant amount of toilet paper from an officer without the use being monitored, and successfully ingested it completing his suicide.  In a place that is underfunded and understaffed for the patients they have, Mr. Marino had no place being in this facility.  “This tragically unnecessary death further illustrates why individuals such as Mr. Marino should receive mental health services in a psychiatric hospital and not a prison” said Christine M. Griffin of the Disability Law Center and Chair of the AAPD Board of Directors.

Prisons have a shocking amount of people with disabilities serving time, and these tragedies are far too common. Currently, 32% of federal prisoners and 40% of people in jail have at least one disability according to the US Department of Justice. Today there are roughly 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars. Prisons are the largest mental health providers in the United States, even though they are not designed or equipped for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities. For inmates that are blind or deaf, solitary confinement is the “accommodation” most prisons choose to give, which can lead to or complicate psychiatric disorders. The LA county prison system is the largest site of mental health services in the country. As of February, 29% of the LA County prison system was made up of people with a psychiatric disability according to the LA Times. Officers are not properly trained to handle people with a psychiatric disability.

This is a complex issue that I do not have the answer to.  Instead of giving grand prison sentences, using programs like Stepping Up to create awareness of the larger than life problem that is mental health in our prisons is a better solution. Stepping Up is a national initiative to reduce the number of people with psychiatric disabilities in jails. Programs like the Exodus Foundation aim to keep people out of prison.  The Exodus Foundation offers 24-hour adult re-entry mentoring through the Red Sea Crossings and Scholarship.  The foundation uses one-on-one therapeutic friendship and support groups to create a community for people coming out of jail or prison.  Community programs are the best way to provide support to those being released from prison. That support system is vital to prevent recidivism. Programs can offer treatments and resources so that nobody has to worry about being re-incarcerated.

Without support, two thirds of offenders will end up back in prison. Sebastian Goodsen, formerly incarcerated, said “I was prey for the prison industrial complex”. His town took away all programs that kept him off the street until he was 16 years old. There were no more after school programs, arts programs were closed, and nothing was left but the streets. Many people have nowhere to turn because their resources are stripped away. It costs around $30,000 to send someone to prison, but only costs around $6,500 to mentor someone and keep them out of prison. That is saving $23,500 a year and having better results.  This is not a solution being offered, but it is a step in the right direction.  The current system is not working, so let us invest in a system that can.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center (RAC) spoke about T’Shuvah and the importance of repairing, repentance, and redemption. T’Shuvah is considering and accepting our misdeeds and actively trying to right our wrongs. Our prison system is flawed and in order to change it, T’Shuvah is necessary. We need to recognize that sending someone to prison can be prevented. We need to accept that the prison system in America is flawed, and we need a way to right the wrongs we have done with it. All those created in the image of God deserve a fighting chance through treatment and prevention programs.

The vigil was the beginning to a day of lobbying for S.2123, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which will allow every person to be an individual in their sentencing. The focus is on low level crimes, rather than serious drug or violent offenses. The vigil was hosted on June 15 by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Council of Churches, the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, and MomsRising on the Northeast quadrant of the Capitol Grounds. Representatives from all different faiths came out to support this effort.


Alexa Maltby is a summer intern with AAPD’s Interfaith Initiative through the Machon Kaplan Summer Internship Program hosted by the Religious Action Center.

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