The Silent Victims: Inmates with Learning Disabilities
By Douglas P. Wilson
Following the John Geoghan murder at the Souza-Baranowski super-maximum security prison in Shirley, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) pledged to modernize its policies and management structure to meet the needs of the 21st century. However, all the public comments made by DOC officials and those currently investigating some of the DOC’s most dubious actions have failed to address a segment of the inmate population that has suffered extraordinary indignities on a daily basis as a result of the archaic policies and overly authoritarian management of the department. These silently suffering inmates are afflicted with learning disabilities.
The DOC has shown complete indifference to the special needs of inmates with learning disabilities. The DOC’s reaction may be predicated on the recent penal philosophy of punishment instead of rehabilitation, longer prison sentences, and an expectation of more severe treatment while incarcerated. This correctional ideology is often referred to as the “warehousing method,” since its implementation has caused prison overcrowding and less inmate supervision post release.
The treatment of inmates with learning disabilities has evaded public attention for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the inmates with learning disabilities have been kept silent by existing DOC policies that prevent them from receiving the technical accommodations that would enable them to communicate their unique difficulties to the public, government agencies, the courts, and even DOC administrators. Another problem is that government agencies, charged with the duty of protecting the disabled, turn a blind eye to claims made by inmates.
Without accommodations, inmates with learning disabilities such as dyslexia are less likely to participate in prison educational programs or remain in contact with family and friends. Studies suggest that even the most basic educational opportunities and community support while incarcerated can lower prisoner recidivism rates[i]. Inmates who lack accommodations often depend on other inmates to provide services like letter-writing for them. This situation humiliates and frustrates disabled inmates. Dependency on other inmates also puts disabled inmates at a greater risk of being victims of violence, extortion, or being forced to perform favors in return.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by Congress. This law was designed to move society toward removing the barriers and inequities faced by individuals with disabilities. Disabled inmates who were denied equal treatment or access to activities and programs due to their disabilities filed civil litigation to force correctional institutions to make reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. A number of landmark cases by the US Supreme Court, such as Pennsylvania Dept. of Coorections v. Yeskey, 118 S.Ct. 1952 (1998), held that disabled inmates are protected from discriminatory actions under the provisions provided pursuant to the ADA. This was a leap forward for corrections. However, the civil actions brought before the court concerned only physical disabilities. Therefore, correctional institutions made little to no progress toward bringing about changes to benefit inmates with learning disabilities.
The Massachusetts DOC has been particularly aggressive in warding off modernization, denying learning disabled inmates access to accommodations while refusing to provide the medical examinations required to identify learning disabilities. A recent civil action illustrating the above, Wilson v. Matesanz, Norfolk Superior Court, CA No. 02-00007, prompted one Superior Court Justice to issue this scalding comment as part of a larger ruling: “If we are to have any faith in the rehabilitative powers of incarceration, our penal institutions should encourage, or at least not discourage, educational efforts by inmates.” (Ed. note. The author is the plaintiff in the fore mentioned civil action, the defendant the Superintendent of Norfolk MCI.)
A recent U.S. Department of Justice survey found that 10% of inmates report having a learning disability[ii], although this figure is likely to be misleading, since many inmates are unaware of their medical conditions given their lower economic state prior to incarceration. Frank Wood, a professor of neurology at Wake Forest University and expert in the field of learning disabilities, asserts that individuals with dyslexia are overrepresented in prison populations[iii]. Studies proving that 50-75% of prisoners are functionally illiterate[iv] seem to corroborate Dr Wood’s claim.
The time is ripe to bring public awareness to the silent victims of the DOC’s outdated policies and discriminatory actions. Through public support and open scrutiny of the DOC, the institution can be strengthened and guided toward fulfilling its charter of public safety, while offering dignity and hope to numerous inmates. Americans ought to demand a safe, humane, and productive prison environment with the goal of aiding inmates who genuinely seek self-education.
[i] Piehl, M.A. (1.2002). From Cell to Street: A Plan to Supervise Inmates after Release.
[ii] Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1997). Characteristics of Federal Prisoners: United States, 1992-1997.
[iii] Gormane, C. (7.28.2003). The New Science of Dyslexia. Time.
[iv] Tewksbury, R. (12.1994). Literary Program for Jail Inmates: Reflection and Recommendation for One Program. The Prison Journal.