A significant number of criminal justice systems lack strategies or policies to meet the needs of persons in prison living with disabilities. Such lack of attention has meant there is also little data on their representation in prison populations or in arrest rates.
A challenge in estimating the number of people with disabilities in prisons and other criminal justice interventions is insufficient understanding, recognition and under diagnosis, particularly of sensory or intellectual disabilities and autism.
From the scant data available, it can be determined that a significant proportion of people in prison live with one or multiple disabilities. In Australia, it is estimated that people with disabilities, particularly cognitive or psycho social disabilities, comprise around 18 per cent of the country’s population, but almost 50 per cent of people aged 18-24 years entering prison.
The UN Nelson Mandela Rules require prison authorities to make ‘reasonable accommodation and adjustment’ for persons with physical, mental or other disabilities so that they can have equal access to the various parts of the prison regime. In addition, there are rules that require the communication of information in a manner that is understandable.
Infrastructure in detention settings is usually inadequate for persons with disabilities. In Europe, it was found that larger prison cells for people with reduced mobility are usually unavailable. Other common issues can be inaccessible parts of the prison facility and inadequate accommodation for persons with sensor disabilities.
International law stipulates that persons diagnosed with severe mental disabilities and/or health conditions that would be worsened by prison should not be imprisoned but transferred to appropriate health facilities.
Persons with mental disabilities can often face discriminatory disciplinary measures in detention facilities, due to a lack of diagnosis and understanding of staff. They may also be placed in solitary confinement more frequently and for longer periods, in violation of the rules on solitary confinement found in the UN Nelson Mandela Rules and the UN Bangkok Rules.