‘‘The Institution Yet to Come’’: Analyzing Incarceration Through a Disability Lens
While such comparisons help crystallize the coalition building potential between those placed in institutions and in prisons, they also obscure the important ways in which one identity or formof oppression is used to discredit the other. In an essay in Justice Matters, Bird (2006) posits the important connections she finds between the two populations but cautions: ‘‘In 1995
I began sharing my story publicly of how being paralyzed in a drunk driving crash has changed my life. I’ll never forget the first time that someone said to me ‘but you got a life sentence sitting in that wheelchair and all he got was a year in a restitution center!?’’’ (Bird 2006). Such comparisons seem to create an equation of disability with punishment, which is not a new phenomenon. One of the earliest sources of stigmatization of disability can be found in religious or magical thinking that assumed that disability is a result of punishment from the gods or a result of witchcraft. In addition, if one listens to thenarratives
of disabled people who were segregated in institutions, another obvious connection emerges in which many describe their time there as a form of incarceration. Self advocates (activists with intellectual disability labels) compare institutions to living in prisons, and characterize their existence there as incarceration or being jailed while committing no apparent crime (Hayden, Lakin and Taylor 1995/6; Hayden 1997). Such statements, combined with McBride Johnson’s epigraph and Bird’s narrative above, help crystallize the vital connections between prisoners and people with disabilities, butmay also pit one group against the other and ignore both the differences and intersections between the twopopulations. I argue that today one cannot analyze
the forces of incarceration without having a disability lens. For instance, a disproportionate number of persons incarcerated in US prisons and jails are disabled. As suggested above, prisoners with disabilities are a population that is hard to count (and account for) but is definitely at the intersection of the disability and imprisonment juggernaut. There is much at stake in counting the percentage of disabled prisoners. In terms of policy and legislation, if one can prove sufficiently that there is a large percentage of prisoners
with a specific disability, then it would requirea specific solutionsuchas requesting more hospital units to be built in specific prisons or prescribing more medications on a particular unit. For activists, using statistics that demonstrate the high prevalence of disabled prisoners could go in several directions. If one is an activist in NAMI (National Alliance ofMental Illness), for instance, then these statistics are used to show that deinstitutionalization failed and that prisons and jails had become a dumping ground for those labeled as mentally ill with the lack of other alternatives. Such campaigns, which have been ongoing since the early 1990s, call in essence for the (re)hospitalization of those with psychiatric diagnosis (see Torrey 1996 for example). However, such critiques from activists and scholars about inappropriately placing disabled people in nursing homes or prisons reproduce the sentiment that there are those who are somehow appropriately placed in nursing homes and prisons. In other words, it reinscribes the notion that there are those who really need to be segregated in carceral edifices, while those who are young and disabled do not. However, others might use these stat-
istics to showcase the cruelty of the criminal ‘‘justice’’ system and call for the just treatment of all prisoners (such as abolishing the use of isolation units as a whole). The downturn of such arguments, much like those in the calls to abolish the death penalty for those who are labeled as intellectually disabled, is that they can turn into arguments which reproduce ableist rhetoric and may seem to call for the release of some prisoners (i.e., those most disabled) but not others. A similar tactic is used by those who find conditions of disabled prisoners and those institutionalized so deplorable that they call for the creation of more hospital beds in prisons, reform and overhaul of psychiatric
hospitals and institutions for those labeled as intellectually disabled and the creation of more accessible prisons. Others call not for reforming these edifices, but for abolishing them altogether.