Solitary confinement compounds health problems for inmates with disabilities

“I felt like a mouse, like a rat.”

CREDIT: iStock
CREDIT: iStock

The first time Jones was put in solitary confinement, he was housed at a detention center waiting for his trial to start. He had been accused of sexual abuse and forced to spend three months alone. His movement was completely restricted; as a deaf man, Jones felt more isolated than other people condemned to solitary cells.

“I felt like I was in maximum detention,” Jones, who asked that his real name and the name of the detention facility not be used, told ThinkProgress. “I saw other hearing inmates socializing, and I was not given that freedom to do that. I felt a rage growing inside me, and of course that affected me physically.”

Jones said he wasn’t offered a reason for his isolation. He languished behind bars and felt as though the skills he’d spent a lifetime learning were slipping away from him.

“I felt like I was losing mental function. I felt like I was even losing my ability to read and write, because it was not getting exercised,” he said. “I felt like a mouse, like a rat. It felt like the world was dark to me.”


On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released the first-ever national report about the toll solitary confinement takes on prisoners with physical disabilities, including those who are deaf, blind, and have limited movement.

By and large, the ACLU says, prisons and jails under state and federal jurisdiction have neglected their duty to uphold the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, which granted protections and equal rights to people like Jones. Correctional officers often go a step further by silencing people in desperate need of help, unnecessarily throwing them into restrictive housing, according to the report.

Architecturally and programmatically, prisons and jails aren’t built to accommodate people with disabilities who need basic tools and resources such as “hearing aids, Braille materials, certified sign language interpreters, or other auxiliary aids and services that are necessary to facilitate meaningful communication,” the ACLU says. As a result, prisoners with physical disabilities have an immediate disadvantage when they are locked up, which is compounded by the fact that few staff members are knowledgeable about their conditions and needs.

They are frequently victims of physical and verbal attacks by guards and fellow prisoners as well, the ACLU says.

The organization concluded that people are regularly confined to isolated cells precisely because of their disabilities. In some cases, including Jones’ stint in a prison’s solitary unit, isolation is justified as a medical necessity or matter of safety. Other people are thrown into restrictive housing for punitive reasons related to their disability, such as “disobeying” orders they cannot hear or not moving fast enough because they cannot walk.


Scientists, criminal justice advocates, and prisoners have long documented the physical and mental side effects of short and long-term confinement in small, isolated cells for 23 plus hours a day. But prisoners with disabilities are even more vulnerable than their able-bodied counterparts in many ways, according to the ACLU.

On the rare occasion that they are provided with communication tools and medical devices, prisoners are routinely forced to give them up before entering solitary confinement. Likewise, people with disabilities are separated from staff and peers who can help them navigate prison life, so there is virtually no way for them to communicate that they need medical or mental health assistance. Restricted movement subsequently results in physical decline. And prisoners are shut out of whatever limited chances they have to participate in rehabilitative programs, including classes, events, and job training.

“The correctional officers offered no help,” Jones said of his time in solitary. In addition to the three months of pretrial confinement at the detention center, he spent another 45 days in an isolated prison cell once he was convicted, and before that conviction was overturned. “They ignored me. They would not communicate with me. They wouldn’t even bother to write with me.”

For other prisoners with physical impairments, neglect by prison officials is made worse by the fact that their self-care, such as showering, using the restroom, and getting dressed can become too difficult for them to manage on their own.

Dean Westwood, a quadriplegic man who served time in three correctional facilities in Oregon, suffered from the moment he was locked up in an “infirmary” cell that resembled solitary confinement in all but name.


Before he was granted 45-minute blocks of time to spend in a cement-walled recreation area on an inconsistent basis, Westwood was confined to his cell at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility around the clock. Prior to his incarceration, he relied on mobility devices to eat and relieve himself, and medication that prevented muscle spasms and uncontrolled urination. But when he got to prison, staff told him that they wanted to give him a “holiday” from his pills, and laid him on a bed with no ability to get on and off.

Without medicine and mobility tools, he repeatedly urinated on himself and suffered violent seizures, alone.

“It was anything but a holiday. It was unadulterated torture,” he told ThinkProgress.

At the Two Rivers Correctional Institution, his time in another isolated infirmary cell barred him from socializing in the prison yard and participating in the programs offered by the prison. He couldn’t work to earn money for early-release credit, commissary items, or phone calls to his loved ones.

“The despair was incalculable,” Westwood said. “It amplified the physical disability so much in my mind. I lost the ability to use my body, so I’m in the prison of the body. And now I’m in the prison of the mind where it’s not metaphorical. It’s literal. I’m having no interaction with other people. I’m not able to communicate with my family. There’s no stimuli.”

He often thought about banging his head against a wall in order to put himself out of his misery.

Scott Huffman, a former prisoner who was housed with 10 deaf men at the Rayburn Correctional Center in Louisiana, was ultimately forced to learn American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with his cellmates. Not only did prison officials fail to provide interpretation services, they expected him to do the job.

In that capacity, Huffman says he witnessed routine abuse of the deaf prisoners by guards who thought they were lying about their disability, because of their ability to read lips. He saw fellow hearing prisoners steal their belongings and sexually assault them during showertime, in part because deaf prisoners weren’t able to pick up on certain social cues. He also realized that the lack of stimuli in solitary diminished people’s language skills — a common trend discovered by the ACLU.

“They can’t talk with anybody or sign with anyone. So mentally and physically, there’s a decline — especially with language,” said Huffman, who has since made a career of interpreting and assisting deaf people during the reentry process. Indeed, Jones said he “felt almost like a baby” when he was released from isolation, because he had to relearn basic communication.

Huffman believes prisoners with disabilities are intentionally isolated for the convenience of prison staff.

“It’s an easy way to eliminate any grievances that they might have in the general population, so they put [deaf prisoners] in a cell,” he said. “They can control their activity. They’re not moving around, so they don’t need as many accommodations.”

Between January 2013 and December 2015, only 10 of 186 grievances filed by prisoners regarding their disabilities were resolved in his home state of Louisiana, the ACLU reports.

“People don’t like to think of physical disability because, in all reality, it’s going to touch every one of us at some point in our life, whether it’s through physical harm, or disease, or the aging process,” Westwood, the quadriplegic former inmate from Oregon, said. “People don’t like to be reminded of that.”

Westwood has been out of prison since March 2016, but every aspect of his life is still impacted by his experience behind bars. Besides the initial adjustment to living with severely restricted mobility due to a diving accident, he says he never suffered from mental illness before entering prison. Now he’s on medication for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It encroaches on every aspect of your life, from your mental well-being to your confidence to your ability to seek social activity to employment to interaction with your family and friends,” said Westwood. “My world has gotten so much smaller.”

This post has been updated to correct Scott Huffman’s name.