By Katie Tastrom, Disability Justice Committee Co-Chair
“When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and your heart.” —Tourmaline
As co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Disability Justice Committee (NLG DJC), I spend a lot of time thinking about the way disability justice can be used to support social movements. The NLG has been an explicitly abolitionist organization since 2015, when we passed a resolution that calls for “dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.”
As police and prison abolition becomes more mainstream – thanks to the work of Black feminist thinkers like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba – the NLG has an important role to play in moving the abolition movement forward. It’s an opportunity for us to make sure that we bring abolitionist support to all movements, including the disability justice movement.
The carceral state goes beyond jails and prisons, so if we want to abolish the cops in our head and our hearts, we need to identify the ways they exist and build alternatives. To those ends, I looked at abolition through a disability justice lens and identified some of the ways disabled people are affected by the carceral systems, not just in jail and prison but other manifestations of the carceral state like doctors, social workers, and other individuals and institutions. I also hope to make clear that abolition is a disability issue, which means that mainstream disability rights organizations should also be involved in the fight to abolish police and prisons.
Disability justice requires the abolition of police and prisons. Disabled people, especially Black and Native disabled people, are disproportionately harmed by prisons and policing. People in prison are three times and people in jail four times as likely to have a disability than those who aren’t incarcerated. Also, half of police killings are of disabled people. Between 25 and 40 percent of people with mental illness will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their life, and the country’s largest mental health facility is a prison. Disability has a huge relationship to incarceration and policing, so it also needs to have a relationship to abolition.
Disability justice requires an intersectional approach, and the point of this is not to read Blackness out of the analysis, because Blackness multiplies the consequences of ableism and the harms of the carceral state. Instead I hope to add to the analysis by also including a disability justice perspective, and what all of this really looks like and means on the ground for disabled people, especially Black disabled people.
This is all informed by my identity as a working class white chronically ill and crazy queer sex worker with a J.D. and an MSW. I’ve been a social worker and have been in psych wards. I have been involved and writing about disability justice for a few years now and I’m the co-chair of the NLG Disability Justice Committee.
I’ve intentionally written this from a first-person perspective and included insights from my lived experience. We talk a lot about the importance of hearing from people with lived experience, but then only listen to degreed “experts.” As someone who is both, my lived experience as a disabled person, especially one who has spent time in psych wards, has been more instructional than anything I can cite. Lived experience is a valid and irreplaceable place to gain knowledge. So since it’s important, I’m including it.
I also want to acknowledge the work of Chelsea Alvarez who consulted on this project.
Disability Justice and Carceral Systems
The carceral state is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of disability justice.
Disability Justice is a set of ten principles articulated by Patty Berne and created with other
disabled BIPOC leaders. These are: intersectionality, leadership of the most impacted, anti-capitalism, cross-movement organizing, wholeness, sustainability, cross-disability solidarity, interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation. Disability justice is a great analysis to apply to abolition because they are borne out of the same vision of liberation for all. For example, intersectionality and leadership of the most impacted requires that we center Black, disabled, and trans and nonbinary leadership, the exact people who are most harmed by policing and prisons. Disability justice also includes collective liberation, which of course includes everyone locked up in jails and prisons, but also psych wards and nursing homes.
I don’t want to belabor this point because I think it’s pretty clear that disability justice requires abolition – and many disability justice leaders also do abolition work. What I want to do is start thinking about what this really means in both the lives of disabled people and for our activism as we fight towards abolition. The purpose is to facilitate what disability justice calls “cross-movement organizing,” to help abolitionists learn more about disability justice and vice versa to help build the most effective movement possible.
As noted above, a lot of the people in prisons and jails are disabled. People with learning, developmental, and mental health disabilities are especially overrepresented in the criminal justice system. There’s a ton of writing about this so I’m not going to go too far into it, but this alone should be enough to convince the mainstream disability community that they should be pushing for abolition.
Along with being more likely to end up in jails and prisons, once we are there disabled people are treated especially cruelly. In 2015 Human Rights Watch issued a report called Callous and Cruel, Use of force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons. Unsurprisingly, they found that people in prisons and jails were not getting the mental health treatment they needed. Of course, this leads to people having more mental health symptoms including being unable to follow the commands of guards. Instead of treatment, they are punished with isolation which then often leads to a further increase in mental health symptoms.
People with disabilities in jails and prison face tons of abuse and neglect . The New York Times wrote about how people with mental health disabilities spend a much longer time in jail and prison than nondisabled people. Disabled people in prison are also more likely to spend time in solitary confinement, which can then lead them to experience an increase of symptoms.
Many jails and prisons are also not accessible for people with physical disabilities. I worked on a lawsuit against a prison that would not allow a wheelchair user to use a motorized wheelchair provided at his own cost. Instead, he had to rely on his roommate or someone else to push his manual wheelchair for him, including to the bathroom. However, there were not always people available to push him so sometimes he was forced to soil himself. I don’t say this to push for resources to be put into making prisons accessible of course. This is just one example of some of the cruelty against disabled people in prison. Jails and prisons are an especially terrible place for disabled people.
A lot of times disabled people may not be able to access needed care, or be left to die because we are not seen as valuable. Just in the last few months disabled people had to fight against medical rationing during COVID-19. While a federal court has said that hospitals cannot discriminate against disabled people during lifesaving treatment, disabled people are still seen as lives less worth saving. For example, people with intellectual disabilities have worse outcomes like spending more time in hospitals and dying earlier, often from things that could have been prevented with proper care. As always, Black, brown, and trans people will be disproportionately affected.
When we are able to get care in hospitals, we may end up getting stuck there for extended periods because that is the only place we are able to get treatment. When you are in the hospital you are at the whims of the doctors and nurses and their decisions about your care and how long you should remain there. In this way, hospitals become a place of containment and death for disabled people. (Though obviously one we are sometimes forced to engage with.)
By this I mean anyone who is in a locked “mental health” facility like those in hospitals. I’m not going to spend too long on this section because I think and hope it’s clear that locking up disabled people against their will is carceral. However, it is incredibly important, and also something that personally gives me panic attacks. Aside from being inherently carceral, psych wards are also becoming more and more prison-like. Of course those facilities that serve low income, BIPOC, and people in severe crisis (which is what happens when you don’t have access to treatment and other necessary resources), will tend to be the most carceral.
States have different laws around involuntary commitment, but many states have “civil commitment” mechanisms which allow people with mental health and developmental disabilities to be forced into inpatient or outpatient treatment, even without being convicted of a crime. State laws usually only require that the court deem the person “dangerous,” which is of course judged in the context of a culture that has taught people to fear people with mental health disabilities, especially when they are Black.
Psych Emergency Rooms
The ideal best case scenario of calling the police on a suicidal person is that the police will bring them to the local psychiatric emergency room if you have one, the general ER if not. Many hospitals have some kind of “Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program” (CPEP) program, though the acronym may differ. These are hospital-based psychiatric programs that will often intake people either through the emergency room or another place on-site. Usually what happens is – typically after waiting for hours – a psychiatrist or other “professional” will do an evaluation. After the evaluation people are usually either discharged, kept for observation, or sent back home.
As anyone who has needed emergency medical assistance of any kind is probably aware, it usually requires a long wait, and acute psychiatric care is no different, though obviously more resourced communities will likely have shorter wait times and vice versa. If someone is suicidal, having to wait those few hours for an evaluation isn’t helpful, and there is nothing typically in the evaluation process that is about treatment.
So after the evaluation process if someone is discharged, they have received no treatment and just went through that likely traumatic (if the police are involved) experience. If you can be admitted, which depends on capacity, your level of distress, and possibly your insurance coverage, you will be admitted to the psych ward, which are the same psych wards that I addressed above. (Some places may have different units, but it’s essentially the same thing; your options are either be admitted and give up a ton of rights, and possibly be held against your will, or get no immediate treatment at all.)
Nursing homes are another place where disabled people are locked up and warehoused and they must be a central focus of abolition. Nursing homes are places where people with disabilities (including disabilities due to age) are kept in congregant settings. Basically institutions but smaller. Late disabled activist Stacey Park Milbern noted that one of the problems with nursing homes is that “disabled people, especially people of color, are left alone in a system that already doesn’t care about us.”
Like many of these topics, whole books could be written about just this alone. Alice Wong summarized the issue well in her article about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes (which also highlights some of the danger of these settings):
“Congregant settings do not ensure safety or care. By design, institutions do not allow us to know about the conditions of the people incarcerated inside. They are allowed to operate without transparency and accountability. They render people as less than human, subject to exploitation, abuse, and neglect. The systems that exist now don’t have to remain the same. We must dismantle the nursing home industry that places profits over lives as they endanger their workers and operates with inadequate oversight and regulation. And we must work toward decarceration and deinstitutionalization because these systems are dangerous, inhumane, and unjust.” (Links in original.)
Other Aspects of the Carceral State
“I want to figure out how to transform harm in every possible context because I have been harmed, and I have harmed other people. My political commitments are to developing stronger relationships with people, and to transforming harm. All those other things that you mentioned, the ideas only matter to me to the extent that they impact both those [commitments]. It is deeply offensive and hurtful to me that we have prisons because they break relationships and people. That’s how I feel about prisons—they are inherently made for isolation.
When they talk about repair and restorative justice, it’s all about relationships, and relationships in the context of harm. So, when people talk about these things as though they are just abstract ideas, or things that are just theory-building without connection to actual people’s lives, I can’t recognize it.” –Mariame Kaba
Disabled people frequently interact with systems of incarceration beyond being physically locked up. The carceral system affects the lives of disabled people also through the way the system is structured, and through the individuals who make up the systems.
Why are so many disabled people behind bars? Why are so many incarcerated people disabled? Rebecca Vallas wrote Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons, and found in part that disabled people, especially people with mental health disabilities, are more likely to interact with police and be arrested than nondisabled people, and “between seven and ten percent of all police interactions involve individuals with mental health conditions.” Because of the strong connection between disabled people and over policing, as well as the strong connection between Black people and over policing, we need to center Black disabled people in all conversations about policing. (As well as sex workers, trans people and others). Abolitionists (and reformists) already talk about policing frequently, though rarely is the connection between disability brought up.
Disabled People Are Safer Without Police
One of the biggest concerns that people have with abolition is about safety. There are many longtime abolition activists and organizations that go into much more detail about this, (including the ways the question itself is Anti-Black.) But the statistics make clear that disabled people are not safe right now and that more police or prisons will just make disabled people less safe, exponentially so for Black disabled people. Disabled people are disproportionately likely to be victims of violence from police, as noted above half of police shootings are of disabled people. Abolishing the police makes us safer because we don’t have to suffer their violence.
Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters, a report from The Treatment and Advocacy Center found that, “Because of the disproportionate volume of contact between individuals with serious mental illness and law enforcement, reducing the likelihood of police interaction with individuals in psychiatric crisis may represent the single most immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police encounters in the United States.” (Emphasis mine.) Obviously getting rid of the police would reduce police encounters to zero.
We also “experience significantly higher rates of rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault than non-disabled people.” Disabled people are often targeted and victimized due to our vulnerability in the current system, which means that safety is even more important. The same report from the Bureau of Justice statistics found that disabled people are significantly more likely to be victimized by someone they know, including caregivers. Because we may depend on our caregivers and other family members, we may be unlikely or unable to “report them,” so the abuse is already not being stopped by the current system. These numbers don’t even include nursing homes and other institutions.
Even when a disabled person is being abused, the police will rarely be of use. Instead they will probably direct you to your local adult protection agency. So if you look at the typical ways that interpersonal violence against people with disabilities manifests, the police are most likely either going to be the cause of the violence, or do nothing about it even if they find out. The police are empirically more dangerous to disabled people than the immediate abolition of them would be.
Doctors as Cops
If you are disabled or a person of color or fat or queer or trans or have any kind of marginalized identity, you have probably experienced medical care where doctors act more like police than doctors, sometimes working directly with them. Since lawmakers have been focusing on “the opiate epidemic,” it has only gotten worse. Now doctors can be held criminally responsible for prescribing pain medication if a judge disagrees with the prescription. As one former doctor said:, “Holding physicians liable for misbehavior or dishonesty of their patients turns physicians into policemen and is, in principle, incompatible with effective medical care.” As always, the consequences of this policy won’t be felt equally, obviously disabled people are more likely to interact with doctors, so we’ll have to deal with it the most. Black people are also disproportionately affected and studies have shown doctors consistently undertreatment pain in Black people.
Disabled people have a very interesting relationship with diagnosis. In some ways it is helpful to get a diagnosis, but in other ways it can be harmful. While typically diagnoses are required by insurance companies before they will pay for treatment, diagnoses can also be used against people in employment, healthcare, and other situations, including civil commitment. Black people are especially likely to be misdiagnosed, and a recent study has found psychiatric diagnostics scientifically worthless and influenced by bias. For example, though Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) ADHD share many of the same characteristics, Black kids are more likely to be diagnosed with ODD due to racial bias.
Even though addiction is widely acknowledged as a disease, it’s still generally treated as a criminal behavior by the U.S. justice system. Possession and use of small amounts of drugs is still a crime, with the exception of marijuana and in only some states. Whether addiction alone is a disability is beyond the scope of this, but if addiction is a disease then it shouldn’t be treated as a crime. Either way, addiction is a disability issue because disabled people are more likely to have addictions.
People with intellectual disabilities have a higher rate of substance abuse and face more extensive consequences and problems from their use – including criminal justice involvement – than nondisabled people. Mental health and addiction are so connected that many hospitals and other institutional settings have specific dual diagnosis programs for people with both mental health and addiction issues. People with physical disabilities have substance use disorders at two to four times the rate of nondisabled people.
The carceral system has become more involved over time with addiction, and some jails are being turned into treatment centers for people who have not even been accused of a crime. In other words, in order to get substance abuse treatment in some places, people have to put themselves in jail. States laws, like Massachusetts, also allow for involuntary commitment based on addiction. In other words, someone can be locked up for having an addiction even if they aren’t convicted of other crimes.
Another way that the carceral system has continued to grow into addiction treatment is through drug courts. Drug courts were pushed as a way to keep people with substance abuse issues who committed addiction related crimes out of jail and into treatment, but they didn’t work out that way. Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, says that drug courts have done more harm than good. Before the drug courts, the prosecutor would often connect someone with drug issues to a social worker or addiction treatment and drop the charges.
Now, to participate in these specialized drug court programs you need to plead guilty. Generally the court will dismiss the charges only after you successfully complete the program. In other words, the only way to end up without a record (and probably jail time) is to “complete” the court. The problem is that part of recovery from drug addiction involves relapsing, which in most programs and in most cases will mean the judge will kick you out of drug court and send them back to jail, and jails are not treatment centers. So in the end the outcome is worse than if there wasn’t a drug court to begin with.
Social workers are another arm of the carceral state. Since specifics differ so much between agencies, and this issue alone could be its own book, I’ll just touch on it briefly. The whole profession is based on white supremacist models where (often) middle class white women social workers act as gatekeepers to benefits for marginalized people. Social workers are often cogs in the machine that keep the prison industrial complex going. One bad note from a social worker can land someone on probation in jail or permanently separate a parent and child.
Social workers can have as much power over your life as a police officer does, and they can use it in the same way. Think about social workers who work in treatment centers and report relapses to a probation officer which can result in a violation of probation or parole that leads to jail or prison. The model the profession is based on assumes a power differential between the social worker and the client, and in real life the power differences are even more stark and there is often little oversight and training.
Of course there are some individual social workers who are doing good and liberatory work, including abolitionist work. However, like every other aspect of white supremacy, if you are not actively working against it, you are supporting it.
CPS and Foster Care
Another way that social workers uphold the carceral state is through Child Protective Services (CPS), or whatever your local child welfare agency is called. Social workers are mandated reporters, which means that if they suspect any child abuse or neglect they must – by law – call CPS. This is even if they know that the likely outcome would lead to the child being in a less safe environment, including foster care that is not necessarily equipped for disabled kids. Some schools have even allegedly used CPS calls as a way to get parents to do what they want. At the same time, CPS has been found to ignore abuse against disabled children.
CPS is especially harmful for disabled parents as parents with disabilities are disproportionately involved with the child welfare system and are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than non-disabled people. Even the DOJ has acknowledged widespread discrimination against parents with disabilities.
Although CPS social workers may not see their jobs as adversarial to the parent, when a child abuse or neglect case goes forward, CPS is on the side of the state. In the cases I sat in on, all of the CPS social workers worked very closely with the state to help move forward to sever the rights of the often disabled biological parents. Then the child often ends up in foster care.
In a study published in the Children and Youth Service Review in 2016, researchers found that “at least 19% of children in foster care have a parent or caretaker with a disability.” They also found worse outcomes in terms of permanency and length of time in foster care for kids who have a parent or caretaker with a disability. Disabled kids are overrepresented in the foster care system and are also likely to be in foster homes with caregivers who don’t have the equipment and/or expertise to care for them.
Teachers and Special Education
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the way that school policies and practices lead students, especially Black and disabled students, directly into interaction with the criminal justice system. The Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund issued a report which said:
“Students who qualify for special education too often receive inferior services in segregated settings and incur repeated disciplinary actions. According to the U.S. Department of Education (PDF), students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension (13 percent) than students without disabilities (6 percent). Students with disabilities represent 12 percent of the overall student population, yet make up 25 percent of all students involved in a school-related arrest, 58 percent of all students placed in seclusion, and a staggering 75 percent of all students physically restrained at school.
The numbers are even worse for students of color with disabilities. Over a quarter of African-American boys with disabilities, and 19 percent of African-American girls with disabilities, received at least one out-of-school suspension in 2011—2012. African-American students with disabilities represent 18.7 percent of the special education population, but 49.9 percent of special education students in correctional facilities.
Many disabled youth in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems go through general education with unaddressed academic, behavioral, or mental health needs. For example, one study found that up to 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education, yet only 37 percent receive services while in school.”
Disabled Black kids are uniquely affected by the school to prison pipeline, and special education classes are made to feed them into the pipeline to prison.
Suicide Crisis Workers
One of the only emergency mental health resources that most have access to is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. What most people don’t know is that the Suicide Prevention Lifeline has an active intervention policy which means they will call the police and use location services to try to find callers who the worker believes are in imminent danger of killing themselves. I wrote about how harmful it is to send the police to people in mental health crises for Slate back in 2017 in the wake of Charleena Lyles’ death. I worked at the Lifeline for a few months before writing that piece and while I was there I tried to bring up issues about how the police may exacerbate the crisis and danger suicidal people are facing in many situations, especially for Black people. This was not received well and also wasn’t included in any part of the training. The police were presented as only helpful for people in crisis, even though that’s objectively not true.
Another problem is aside from the police, hospitals, and suicide hotlines (some of which, like the Trans Lifeline, do not call emergency services without your consent), there are not many resources for people who are in acute mental health crisis. Once the police do get involved in a situation where someone is in extreme mental distress, they will likely either arrest you or send you to your hospital acute psychiatric emergency department.
Social Security Benefits
My last lawyer job- before I got too sick to work a regular job and starting writing and doing sex work – was in Social Security Federal Court Appeals. I have a lot to say about benefits, and am just skimming the surface below.
In the U.S. there are two kinds of disability benefits: Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Generally, disabled people only get one or the other. The laws for what adults need to prove to get benefits are the same, the differences are related to benefits received. In order to be eligible for SSDI, the disabled person must have worked on the books for a certain amount of time. In other words, it’s only available for people who get too disabled to work later on in life (or at least after working a certain amount of time.) SSDI pays more money to beneficiaries and is not means tested which means you can have as much money or assets as you want and still receive the benefit. In other words, it has nothing to do with need. However, if you don’t have that work record, you can’t get SSDI.
Conversely, SSI is means tested and has very strict resource limits. In 2020 the resource limit was $2000 for an individual and $3000 for a couple. That’s not a typo. Benefit payments are $783 a month for an individual. So if you are so disabled you have never been able to work– the only benefit available literally forces you into poverty. When you look at these numbers it’s easy to see how marginalized disabled people have no choice but to rely on things like theft and sex work which leads to coming in contact with the criminal justice system. It can also take years for benefits to be approved, so during that time disabled people need to figure out other ways to get by.
And that’s even if someone can get benefits. I worked on a case for someone whose mental health disabilities were so severe he had a pump of an anti-psychotic medicine surgically implanted into him, but since he had been in and out of prison, and prison doesn’t keep good medical records, he didn’t have the records to prove it. I could go on about people who have wrongfully been denied disability, but most people know at least one person who this has happened to. Even on its face you can see the way disability benefits are structured supports the carceral state.
Medicaid and Institutional Bias
Medicaid, the government provided insurance for low income people who qualify – plays a huge part in the incarceration in nursing homes of people with disabilities through something called the “institutional bias.” The New York State Center for Disability Rights explains that:
In the United States, nursing homes have the advantage of what’s called the Institutional Bias, meaning that any state that receives federal dollars for Medicaid, must provide nursing home services, but community based services are optional.
So what happens is communities have a lot of nursing homes, but not community or home based options. So people who don’t need the level of care that a nursing home provides end up there because it’s the only way to get the care they need – along with the subsequent lack of freedom (and also a much more expensive bill.)
Sex Offender Registry
Abolishing the sex offender registry has been something that abolitionists have been talking about for a while, so I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds with this, but I do want to note that this is a disability issue as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are disproportionately harmed by these lists.
While there are not specific numbers, there’s evidence that sex workers are disproportionately disabled. I wrote about the connection between disability and sex work for Rooted in Rights, and am working on other research about this issue (and living it). But since I started sex work I met a lot of people with stories like mine, people who got too mentally or physically (or both) sick to work a typical job and needed something accessible and with a low barrier to entry. Full service sex work is still criminalized in the vast majority of the country, and sex workers – especially Black and trans sex workers are at constant risk of arrest, not to mention the violence the police do nothing about.
The last thing I want to briefly touch in in this section is the relationship between trauma and incarceration. Trauma is disabling, which is expressed diagnostically with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Incarcerated people – especially in the United States – have a much higher rate of PTSD that people who aren’t involved with the criminal justice system. Importantly, childhood poverty contributes to both PTSD and incarceration rates. That means disproportionately Black, brown, and disabled families that are forced into poverty – including everyone on SSI – will be more likely to have trauma related disability and are likely to end up in contact with the criminal justice system.
Crip Strategies for Abolition
And right now, we’re at an interesting moment in the history of disability justice. It’s a moment in which many social justice activists slap “disability justice” on their manifestos or add “ableism” to the list of stuff they’re against. But then nothing else changes: All their organizing is still run the exact same inaccessible way, with the 10-mile-long marches, workshops that urge people to “get out of their seats and move!” and lack of inclusion of any disabled issues or organizing strategies in the work. Many abled Black and Brown activists I know and am comrades with remain ignorant of the fact that sick and disabled Black and Brown people are doing critical organizing and cultural work on issues from protesting the police murders of Black and Brown disabled people to not being killed off by eugenics, killer cops and medical neglect. Many remain ignorant of how we are organizing against getting locked up in back rooms or institutions, and how we are fighting the end of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, no matter how much shit I post on Instagram about it, many remain ignorant of the fact that we have histories and cultures and skills and visions. And that if we’re going to survive the Trumpocalypse and make the new world emerge, our work needs to be cripped the fuck out. Our work needs to center disability justice and the activists at the heart of it who have reclaimed “crip” or “krip” as a positive identity, where being sick, disabled, mad, neurodivergent/Autistic and/or Deaf is at the heart of our radicalism. —Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in 2018
As the NLG works towards our ultimate goal of abolishing the cops in our heads and our hearts and our medical systems, we should follow the disability justice principles of leadership by the most impacted and intersectionality. Whenever we talk about abolition we need to take into account disability justice and center disabled people, especially Black trans incarcerated disabled people, in our analysis.
As the NLG’s abolition work grows and takes focus, it’s important that we also prioritize abolitionist interventions that center disabilities. Here are just a few ideas I had, meant as a place to start.
Lessons from Deinstitutionalization
It’s important for abolitionists to learn about deinstitutionalization. Before the 1960s people with mental health and developmental disabilities were housed in crowded and neglectful “psychiatric hospitals.” Activists wanted to shut down these cruel facilities and instead support community mental health care supports. However, in the 1980’s Reagan dramatically decreased mental health funding. This, along with the work of activists, lead to the closure of institutions, a definite good thing. However, since there weren’t resources in place for mental health funding, a lot of the people who were in institutions were sent to get treatment in prison and jails.
Disabled abolitionist scholar Liat Ben-Moshe has written about the relationship between deinstitutionalization and abolition. Ben-Moshe talks extensively about how the goals of the deinstitutionalization movement are in large part the goals of the prison abolition movement. Abolition has a lot to learn from deinstitutionalization, including from the disabled activists who were successful in many of their goals. It’s a huge topic that I am not doing justice here, but I strongly encourage abolitionists to read Ben-Moshe’s work including their new book, which focuses on this topic.
For everyone – but especially for disabled people – abolition is as much about building the appropriate resources and supports as it is about tearing down the harmful structures that cage, torture, and kill us. However, as Ben-Moshe argues, it will usually be beneficial to dismantle carceral structures even if we don’t yet have the perfect world for people to return to. Things like community mental health support and culturally competent health care for everyone and other resources for disabled people that are consistent with abolitionist principles need to be part of our plan.
Late disability justice activist Stacey Park Milbern coined the term “access washing.” Similar to pinkwashing or greenwashing, she defined accesswashing as “leveraging ‘accessibility’ as justification to harm communities of color and poor & working class communities. If accessibility is made at people’s expense, we have to question and challenge that as access.” Milbern gives examples of access washing such as using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to close down a polling place, which ends up suppressing votes, many from disabled people. We can’t let the state use disability as a justification for any kind of violence, and we need to be thoughtful and nuanced in our approaches.
We don’t just need disability leadership, we need intersectional disability justice leadership or else we will end up reproducing the same systems against other marginalized people.
OLMSTEAD NOT ADA
If I can boil down my thoughts about disability justice and abolition into three words it would be: Olmstead not ADA. You’re probably familiar with the ADA, a law that requires equal access for disabled people. I took a whole class in law school on just the ADA, it’s a big law with a ton of regulations, but generally they revolve around providing measures so that disabled people can access jobs and buildings and other things. I wouldn’t have been able to finish law school without the ADA, it’s an important law and has helped a lot of disabled people.
Olmstead is a Supreme Court decision from 1999 that was brought by two women with developmental and mental health disabilities who were living in the psych unit of a hospital. The mental health professionals in the hospital said they did not need the level of care the hospital provided and could move to a community-based program. However, even though they were ready they were stuck in the hospital for years so they sued under the ADA and won. The Supreme Court said the public entities must provide community-based services for people with disabilities. Olmstead stands for the idea that disabled people’s freedom is important and requires that people with disabilities be placed in the least restrictive setting that gives us an adequate level of care.
I think about the ADA as a way for disabled people to participate in public life. Whereas Olmstead, while the decision was based on the ADA, gives disabled people a way to have a private life. So when working towards abolition we should focus less on accessing institutions and structures that already exist, and more on freeing disabled people who are already entangled in these structures.
Obviously this isn’t a hard rule, of course sometimes a direct ADA suit about access to a facility may be the strategic move towards abolition. That’s why it’s important to follow Black disabled queer and trans leadership, so that decisions can be made based on the specifics of the situation. Though I think generally this is a helpful general concept when thinking about different approaches to disability activism.
Peer Mental Health
Olmstead helped to push for more community care, but not all community care is created equal. We need to make sure that we are using models and structures in our supports that don’t use carceral logic and instead support both interdependence and independence. Stefanie Lyn Kaufman-Mthumkhulu wrote a wonderful essay in Medium about peer supports and community peer mental health models. In the essay peer mental health models are described as a way for disabled people to support each other in culturally competent ways without involving coercive systems. Peer mental health projects can also include mobile response teams or similar strategies to help disabled people get the mental health care we need without involving police or having to go to a psych ward.
Housing and Home Care
Disabled people need access to accessible housing, and everything should be done to help disabled people live in our homes if we want. Disabled people are disproportionately houseless and homelessness is a disability issue. Formerly incarcerated people are almost ten times more likely to be homeless.
However, not all policies towards housing are abolitionist. Many, if not most, housing nonprofits require residents to follow strict rules, some of which they may be literally incapable of following. For example, most programs don’t allow alcohol or drugs and will kick someone out if they are found to be using, which usually puts them back on the streets or back in jail. Of course, many houseless disabled people use drugs to self-medicate, as that may be the only kind of medicine that is accessible. These programs rely on a carceral mindset of punishment by removal of basic needs to punish marginalized people for doing our best to survive.
Instead, we need to be pushing for Housing First policies. This model has been gaining popularity and the basic idea is that you give someone housing no matter what other things they are dealing with or what kind of record they have or what substances they are choosing to take. These policies have shown to work and participants spend less time homeless or hospitalized. It also allows for better and non-coercive relationships between residents and workers.
Disabled people also need to be able to remain in our homes if we want. Home care is so important to help disabled people remain as outside the clutches of the state as possible. And for many can be a life or death issue.
We All Need to Learn About Benefits (Sorry)
While even disabled people who get benefits like SSI or SSDI are still usually forced into poverty, access to benefits is still really important for people who are disabled. Otherwise, and sometimes even still, we’ll need to participate in criminalized economies like drugs and the sex trade which of course lead to interactions with law enforcement.
Benefits are also important because a lot of us depend on regular medication. Specifically with medications used to treat mental health issues, going off the medication will often lead to an increase in mental health symptoms. However, in most places Medicaid is a mess and everywhere the health system is a mess so access to medication and other treatment can be inconsistent. Learning about these systems and helping people navigate them can help to lessen criminal justice interaction.
More of us need to learn about things like SSI and SSDI and Medicaid etc. so we can help people stay alive and at home and understand how these benefit programs push poor disabled people directly into the criminal justice system. Obviously we need better benefit policy too, and as abolitionists we need to be in these conversations because things like the Medicaid institutional bias leads to a lot of incarceration. I know it’s not as sexy as throwing teargas canisters at cops but it’s just as important.
Along the same lines, we also need to decriminalize sex work and drugs. Beyond the direct criminalization of disabled sex workers, criminalization also increases sex trafficking. Disabled people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking. Also, because of the criminalization of sex work many trafficking victims, including children, end up incarcerated.
We also need to stop thinking that specialized courts like drug court or human trafficking court really help anything. I noted their problems earlier, but I think it’s important that we specifically call for their abolition. An article by Becca Kendis in the Case Western Reserve Law Review came to the same conclusion. Kendis recommended that resources are best put into pushing for decriminalization. As abolitionists this is the exact kind of thing that we need to know and intervene in.
Harm Reduction is a movement that’s focused on shifting resources to those most criminalized. Harm reduction was started by drug users, sex workers, and trans people of color to help keep each other safe from the consequences of criminalization, and included providing clean needles and condoms and other things that helped keep people safer. The popularity of harm reduction as a model has grown, and it’s common for harm reduction to be applied to other things (both appropriately and inappropriately.) Many abolitionists are already familiar with harm reduction, but fail to recognize harm reduction’s special significance for disabled people and don’t recognize that it was created by the same people most affected by incarceration and policing.
Support for Disabled Parents
Another huge piece that I want abolitionists to focus on more is the way that CPS acts as an arm of the carceral state, and especially the way this affects Black disabled parents. Removal rates of children where parents have a psychiatric disability have been found to be as high as 80%. Black and Native children have twice the rates of contact with the child welfare system that white kids have. If there is no relative or family friend the social worker approves of to take a removed child in, the child will end up in foster care.
Like every other topic here, I could go on about the way the child welfare system destroys Black disabled families, but I’m limiting it to a quick highlight of one piece of federal policy and state related to this. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was passed theoretically to give children in foster care more stability, because many children in foster care are moved around repeatedly. The act has a lot of parts, which all require different analysis, but one part required states to pass laws related to permanency of placements.
In New York, this means that CPS is, by law, supposed to file Termination of Parental Rights petitions (TPR) if the child has spent 15 of the last 22 months in non-kinship foster care. (Absent compelling reasons that would be in the best interest of the child, though note that this is the exception to the rule, not the rule.) For parents with disabilities, this is a very short amount of time to access and receive any kind of services and/or find and set up appropriate housing or jump through whatever other hoops CPS is asking for, especially considering you are losing something as significant as permanent parental rights to your child.
The system is set up to make it easier for kids to be removed from their families permanently then it is to give disabled parents some parenting support. The vast majority of families involved with CPS are related to neglect rather than other kinds of abuse. Some disabled parents would be able to parent their children safely at home if they just had more support, like stable housing, food, medication, counseling, and/or other resources. Most people want to be good parents but the current system is stacked against them.
Police, Stigma, and 911
The last thing I want to talk about is strategies to keep people from calling the police on disabled people. I wrote an article a few years ago for The Body is Not an Apology about ways to help someone in a mental health emergency without calling the police. Essentially it boils down to: if someone needs help, help them without calling the police; if they don’t need help leave them alone. (And if you feel unsafe then focus on removing yourself from the situation.) As I described above, the police cannot help a mental health situation, even the best case scenario isn’t helpful, they can only make it worse. However, because there is so much stigma around people with mental health disabilities and neurodiverse people, some people will call the police on people for having mental health symptoms even when they are not in distress and are just existing publicly as a disabled person.
But what if someone is in distress? This would be when things like peer led rapid response would be helpful. Disabled people do this informally all the time, I’ve helped lots of suicidal friends try to problem solve emergency mental health care and support around suicidality with as little contact with medical and carceral systems as possible. Sometimes some of us still end up at the hospital, because we need a level of support that is impossible or difficult to get outside of hospitals under the current structure, which is part of the problem.
When it comes to designing support networks, disabled people have and continue to be leaders in building the mutual aid structures that concepts like abolition rely upon. For example, The Disability Justice Culture Club in Oakland is led by BIPOC disabled people has organized distribution of COVID-19 supplies and masks during the forest fires in California. Of course most disabled people do not have access to mutual aid projects, especially people like me who live rurally.
Prison and police abolitionists can and should look to disability justice to help guide the movement. Abolition and disability justice both envision worlds where everyone is free, and both attempt to center the most impacted as the route to justice. Similarly, disability justice activists, especially white ones, need to understand and embrace abolition and understand that disabled people cannot have justice until we have a world without incarceration.
The NLG has an important role to play in creating a world without prisons. We need to use all the tools we have, including and especially the framework of disability justice, to move our work forward and make sure that we are centering the most oppressed, since that is the only way that we all get free.
Featured image: Disabled and Here.)(Credit: