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Disability Is Intertwined With Incarceration, But This Grant Is Helping to Untangle It

By Kelly Dawson
April 18, 2024

“I spent 24 hours in jail, in the holding cell, [after] they arrested me,” says an individual describing their initial interaction with the criminal justice system. “That was a very tough experience, because I am claustrophobic with health issues.”

The criminal legal system is difficult by design, but it is extremely challenging to navigate as a disabled person. There are a range of reasons as to why this is so — encompassing everything from historical precedent, to complicated power dynamics, to a lack of awareness — but established data can help zoom in on big-picture realities. 

According to a survey of prison inmates conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016, nearly two in five state and federal prisoners reported having at least one disability. Two years later, in 2018, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded Access Living its first grant to explore this reality, primarily from its base in Cook County, Illinois. The white paper the non-profit produced within those first 12 months became a roadmap for improvement that’s still being used today.  

“Simply making jails more accessible does not necessarily reduce jail incarceration or disparities for people with disabilities, although better accommodations within jails are important,” says Bria Gillum, the senior program officer for the MacArthur Foundation’s Criminal Justice Program, which directs the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), an initiative to address mass incarceration within local justice systems. “What is more alarming,” Gillum notes, “is that individuals are often held longer in jails because of disability barriers or lack of disability competency. In addition, people with disabilities also face a harder time engaging with diversion and reentry opportunities upon their release from jail, because those programs are not always accessible.”

In the years since that initial grant, Access Living has received approximately $1.65 million in funding from the MacArthur Foundation to identify the root causes and work within communities and the criminal legal system to institute knowledge, create avenues away from incarceration, and supply those who are free to start over with foundational support like housing and employment. The MacArthur Foundation selected Access Living given its national reputation and decades’ worth of inclusive progress in Chicago. 

According to Amber Smock, the vice president of advocacy at Access Living, the timing for these objectives has been ideal. 

“There have long been grassroots conversations around how disability intersects incarceration, but the current racial justice movement has taken it to another level,” Smock says. “The national conversation has begun to include the question of, ‘How do we support communities of color in relation to this intersection?’ It’s not enough to acknowledge that it exists, there needs to be action behind fixing it.” 

The solutions have been layered and collaborative, ranging from educating individual officers, to wider programs addressing incentives such as mental-health crisis services that don’t involve the police, to youth community outreach opportunities to break the cycle of incarceration before it starts. Smock and her team acknowledge that much of this work centers on boots-on-the-ground advocacy, in which they meet with those on all sides of the spectrum to push for inclusion, justice, and reform. 

“In the beginning, people in the criminal justice system had good intentions that we knew would be challenged when it came to putting our plans to the test,” says Candace Coleman, a community strategy specialist at Access Living. “And it has been the case, but I think we’ve created a safe space over time to have these difficult conversations and figure out how to move forward.” 

Untangling disability from incarceration and providing safeguards from the criminal legal system will remain one of Access Living’s ongoing priorities. Given the strides it has already made, Access Living is well-positioned to continue paving a path toward progress.