Korryn Gaines and the Criminalization of Disabilities

AP Photo/Morry Gash

A prisoner stands in an isolation cell in the Dane County Jail in Madison, Wisconsin.

On Monday morning, Korryn Gaines joined the growing list of black people killed by police this year. Baltimore County police officers shot the 23-year-old mother inside her suburban Baltimore home after arriving to serve her a warrant for failure to appear in court for a traffic violation. Police officers say they shot Gaines, who was cradling her son, because she pointed a shotgun at them. 

In the immediate backlash over her death from the wider black community and activists, The Washington Post reported that Gaines might have suffered from lead poisoning as a child, which can lead to cognitive and behavioral disabilities. She also appeared to be suffering from some sort of mental breakdown in the months leading up to her death.

A new study released in July asserts that the criminal justice system discriminates against people with mental disabilities, putting them at more risk of being shot by police or incarcerated. A Center for American Progress report, “Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons,” argues that there are a disproportionate number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in low-income communities of color. These neighborhoods have higher rates of encounters with police than higher-income communities.

According to the center’s report, 7 to 10 percent of all police interactions involve people with mental health issues. Police departments in larger jurisdictions report that their officers interact with six people in psychiatric distress per month. Because police officers are often the de facto first responders, many individuals have suffered at the hands of police because of misunderstandings about certain types of behavior that arise. A Ruderman Family Foundation study found that people with disabilities make up one-third to one-half of all individuals killed by police.

Moreover, once behind bars, disabled people are more at risk of being mistreated by jail officials

Deinstitutionalization has played a large role in putting more people at risk of fatal encounters with police. Mental health treatment centers remain woefully underfunded across the nation. “As we had that shift away from institutions to community health treatments, we didn’t have the corresponding public investment,” says Rebecca Vallas, the author of the center’s report.

Training programs that can help prevent tragedies have been launched in some police departments to avoid what happened to Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old white man living with Down’s syndrome. In 2013, Saylor, a Frederick, Maryland, resident, and his caretaker went to see a movie. Saylor enjoyed it so much that he wanted to watch it again and did not understand that he had to leave and buy a new ticket. Instead, he refused to leave his seat. A theater employee called in three off-duty police officers who were working nearby. The police officers tried to restrain Saylor who, as his aide said, would “freak out” if he were touched by strangers. Robert Saylor died of a crushed larynx. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. The police officers faced no criminal charges. “It was all because of misunderstanding that could’ve been prevented if [the police officers] just tried to deescalate and listened to his caretaker,” says Vallas.

“Crisis intervention training” is a comprehensive training approach developed by the Memphis Police Department in 1998 that teaches police officers about specific conditions and illnesses and offers instruction in de-escalation tactics. “CIT introduces cops to people with mental illnesses and their families and creates familiarity and context,” explains Kim Mosolf of the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities, a Disability Rights Washington project. More than 2,700 communities nationwide use this model.

Meanwhile, American jails and prisons house three times as many people with mental disabilities as state mental hospitals. For individuals with disabilities who survive an altercation with police, there are few alternatives besides jail. “Even if [a cop] shows up and de-escalates and you don’t have any [other] options, you’re still going to arrest them,” explains Mosolf.

It is not uncommon for police officers to practice “mercy booking:” An officer arrests a person in psychiatric distress because a jail may be the individual’s best chance to receive shelter, food, and some sort of care. Because jails are correctional facilities and not mental health treatment centers, inmates with disabilities often languish behind bars. (However, a person may receive minimal treatment, depending on the jail’s size and resources.) “If they don’t feel like they can manage you in the general population, you’re going into isolation,” says Mosolf.

Ideally, individuals with mental disabilities should be steered toward treatment. “There’s always the option of post-booking diversions,” Vallas says of people who “have no business” being in jail. A Miami-Dade County jail operates a program that aims to transfer people in need of treatment within 48 hours of booking. Those individuals are targeted, screened, and released to a mental health facility.

Other measures, such as “assertive community treatment” programs provide some of the best ways to keep individuals with disabilities from cycling in and out of jail and usually include supportive housing. These program teams are typically made up of a range of on-call service providers who can provide treatment in private homes or in public. Team members often collaborate with law enforcement agencies and can help de-escalate incidents and avoid unnecessary arrests. Launched in the 1990s in New York City, a “Pathways to Housing” model based on this type of treatment program cut the incarceration rate of participants in half.

The Center for American Progress report found that this type of program costs about $20,500 annually, which about two-fifths of the cost of jailing someone for one year. Failing to use these tools is “not just inhumane and unjust,” says Vallas. “It’s pennywise and pound foolish.” 

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