Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Disabled Behind Bars

The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America's Jails and Prisons

Disabled Behind Bars

Vallas, Rebecca. Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, July 2016).


This report, written by Rebecca Vallas with the Center for American Progress in July of 2016, explains how “the past six decades have seen widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other institutional facilities that serve people with disabilities—a shift often referred to as deinstitutionalization. The number of Americans residing in such institutions dropped sharply from nearly 560,000 in 1955 to only about 70,000 in 1994. While widely regarded as a positive development, deinstitutionalization was not accompanied by the public investment necessary to ensure that community-based alternatives were made available. As a result, while people with disabilities—and particularly those with mental health conditions—were no longer living in large numbers in institutions, many began to be swept up into the criminal justice system, often due to minor infractions such as sleeping on the sidewalk. Indeed, federal and state jails and prisons are now home to three times as many people with mental health conditions as state mental hospitals.

People with disabilities are thus dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails today. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people behind bars in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population, while those in jails are more than four times as likely. Cognitive disabilities—such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and learning disorders—are among the most commonly reported: Prison inmates are four times as likely and jail inmates more than six times as likely to report a cognitive disability than the general population. People with mental health conditions comprise a large proportion of those behind bars, as well. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that fully 1 in 5 prison inmates have a serious mental illness.”


Click here to view the report.


Keywords: policing, criminal justice system, courts, reentry, homelessness, diversion, accessibility, American with Disabilities Act, psychiatric illness, psychiatry, mental illness