WASHINGTON – When Eddie Ellis talks about the 22 years he spent in prison for manslaughter, he relives the frustration and depression of being punished while behind bars for actions he attributes largely to his dyslexia and epilepsy, and he wonders why he wasn’t treated for his disabilities instead of disciplined.
Criminal justice reform is on the agenda on Capitol Hill, with the House attempting to pass a bill by September and a growing number of senators supporting reform. The bill aims to grant more discretion to judges, which in turn would allow them to take into consideration when sentencing individuals, such as a person’s disability. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin says the measure addresses “the unique concerns of Americans with disabilities…Giving judges more discretion to sentence people based on the specific facts of a case will help judges consider the circumstances of people with disabilities.”
Ellis, now 41, said he was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and lagged behind classmates at school in Washington, D.C.; to his teachers and friends, he was at best a liar or at worst a slacker, and was subjected to years of taunts and ridicules. At age 16, he went to jail on a manslaughter conviction.
In prison, he said, he developed epilepsy but did not receive medical care during seizures. At one point, he was held in solitary confinement for 10 years. He served his time in several federal prisons in Ohio, Colorado and Virginia.
“I can’t say how it affected me medically but I can tell you that having epilepsy and dyslexia really made me feel like I couldn’t move forward (while in prison),” Ellis, said in a phone interview. “Nobody has told me or showed me how to really address or deal with it. So for a long time, I stayed depressed, frustrated and angry.”
According to White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, stories like Ellis’ are not uncommon in the current criminal justice system.
“Let’s face it. We need comprehensive [criminal justice] reform at the federal level,” Jarrett said during a recent White House forum on criminal justice. “People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in our nation’s prisons and in our jails.”
Jarrett said the Obama administration is making the legislation a priority.
“We want to do everything within our power to ensure that Congress moves forward on its responsibility to pass reforms by September,” she said.
According to a new report by The Center for American Progress, of the 2.2 million people behind bars, 32 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 40 percent of jailed inmates reported having at least one disability. People in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the non-incarcerated population, while those in jails are more than four times as likely.
Jennifer Mizrahi, president of nonprofit RespectAbility, whose goal is empowering people with disabilities, said one of the most common kinds of disability or impairment among incarcerated individuals is a cognitive disability —such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities and learning disorders.
“The problem is that people can’t see it,” Mizrahi said. “It’s not like you’re a wheelchair user and somebody can see that you use the wheelchair. A cognitive impairment, people don’t see it so they sometimes think you’re faking it.”
This was the case with Freddie Gray, a young African-American in Baltimore who died in police custody, she said.
Gray had a cognitive disability from living in a home with lead paint, according to news reports. Disability advocates argue that lead poisoning diminished his cognitive function and increased aggression, ultimately putting him at a greater risk of attracting police use of force.
Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Center for American Progress poverty to prosperity program, said Gray is not alone in suffering violent treatment by police based on misunderstandings related to mental health problems and other disabilities.
At the White House forum, Vallas cited a Ruderman Family Foundation report estimating that people with disabilities comprise one-third to one-half of all individuals who are victims of police-involved fatalities. One-quarter of the individuals fatally shot by police in 2015 were people with mental illness, according to an investigation by The Washington Post.
According to Durbin, “Many mentally ill people are destined to be found guilty of violating some rules of conduct because of lack of understanding on both sides — the correctional officers as well as the prisoners. Many times, it leads to segregation, which makes mental illness even worse and then they are released. This shows the ultimate futility and inhumanity of the current system.”
Lawmakers and disability advocates point to the widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other facilities that serve individuals with disabilities as a reason why they are being swept up into the justice system.
According to CAP, the number of people residing in such institutions plummeted from about 560,000 in 1955 to less than 70,000 in 1994.
At the White House forum, Jarrett said that too many jails have become social service providers of last resort with “devastating consequences for individuals with disabilities who have no business being in jail in the first place.”
A former official in Victim Services Division of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, Liz Stanosheck said for many incarcerated individuals with disabilities, other factors also contributed to their imprisonment, but that large population’s special needs are not being addressed.
“Many of them came from disadvantaged lifestyles,” said Stanosheck, who is currently working as the Nebraska area director for nonprofit Prison Fellowship. “Many of them were at-risk kids. Many of them had issues from the very beginning, served in multiple foster care homes. All of those factors contributed to where they ended up.”
While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires prisons to provide reasonable services and accommodations for inmates with disabilities, “poor conditions and inadequate access to health care not only exacerbate existing conditions of inmates with disabilities, but also lead to other physical and mental health issues that they did not have prior to incarceration,” Jarrett said.
Ellis said he was not treated for his dyslexia or epilepsy while incarcerated.
“I remember having my first seizure after being jumped on by some correctional officers,” Ellis said. “From that time until I was released, I was never given any medication or test to see what was happening to me.”
In addition, many inmates with disabilities – ranging from the hearing impaired to the mentally ill – are placed in solitary confinement on charges that are based on misunderstanding of their disabliity, said Jamelia Morgan, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.
If Congress does take up criminal justice reform legislation in the fall, Democrats in the Senate will have to overcome resistances from some senior Republicans, including. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama. They argue that reform proposals would increase risks of crime.
Advocates are pushing for a vote before the White House changes hands, and advocates for people with disability say reform must include accommodations for the disabled.
“Disability needs to be a lens that is applied across every aspect of the reform to build a fair and equitable justice system,” said Vallas.