Rad Reading: Locked Down: On Disability and Incarceration

Image is a dark blue background with grey and white swirls on the top. A quote reads “Disabled people exist in every culture and community in the United States. The imperative that we are to be hidden away in locked buildings is based on cultural values, not a universal inevitability.” Cheryl Green, the authors name, is underneath. The white POC logo is at the bottom of the image.

Image is a dark blue background with grey and white swirls on the top. A quote reads “Disabled people exist in every culture and community in the United States. The imperative that we are to be hidden away in locked buildings is based on cultural values, not a universal inevitability.” Cheryl Green, the authors name, is underneath. The white POC logo is at the bottom of the image.

by Abaki Beck

Last week, several individuals were forcibly removed from outside of Mitch McConnell’s office, where they protested the new Republican health care bill, which, if passed into law, would make drastic cuts to Medicaid, putting the lives of millions of disabled folks at risk. Many were appalled by the violence of the police officers - one person was physically taken out of their wheelchair, others were dragged - and we must acknowledge that there is a long history of police violence towards folks with disabilities, particularly people of color with disabilities. Our reading of the week is “Locked Down: On Disability and Incarceration” by Cheryl Green. This piece examines the structural context of our contemporary treatment of people with disabilities and mental illness in relation to incarceration: from imprisonment of the mentally ill in the 1830s to JFK’s legislation to support community-based care facilities (which never received enough funding to be successful). The author argues that the reasons movements to support disabled people were never successful is that as a society is that we never addressed ableism and how we define who is labeled as “disabled.” For example, in the 19th century slaves who ran away were labeled mentally ill, as were queer people through the 1970s (being trans is still considered a mental illness by the World Health Organization). Today, these biases against disabled folks continue to cause severe damage: it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of people killed by police have disabilities, and more people today with disabilities are in prison than are receiving psychiatric care.  

This essay is significant for several reasons. First, folks with disabilities are routinely ignored when we discuss issues of state violence and incarceration - or they are framed as the violent perpetrators (“mentally unstable”) as opposed to the victims, which they more often are. Secondly, this essay gives an important intersectional analysis about the impacts of sexuality, race, and class on how folks with disabilities are treated in prison. And finally, the author herself is disabled and suffered from a traumatic brain injury; when discussing ableism and disability justice, it is essential to center the voices of disabled folks themselves.  

POC Online Classroom celebrates the intellectual tradition and knowledge production of marginalized communities. Rad Reading is a series that highlights texts to read, writers to support, and ideas to discuss. We post every Tuesday!

Read the full essay HERE!