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This Is Not ‘Community Living’: Inmates with Intellectual Disabilities

April 08, 2014

“People with intellectual disabilities do harder prison time, more time, and get less out of their time.” A.J. Withers

In order to look at why so many people with intellectual disabilities end up in the prison system, we need to first talk about some key statistics. L’Arche Canada Foundations’s blog states that “We know that the Canadian estimate [for people with intellectual abilities] varies from about 0.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population. That’s somewhere between 245,000 and 875,000 people. The estimate most often used is that two per cent or 700,000 Canadians have some type of intellectual disability ranging from very mild to profound.”

 This Is Not ‘Community Living’: Inmates with Intellectual Disabilities

But some estimates, including this one from Still My Revolution put the population of intellectually disabled people in prisons at as high as 9.5 per cent. Juvenile learning disabilities are estimated from 55 – 100 per cent.

What Sorts of Crimes Do People with Intellectual Disabilities Commit?

Disabled World notes that people with intellectual disabilities commit the full gambit of crimes, including murder, robbery, theft, and assault both physical and sexual. However, is their motivation the same? If prisons are a microcosm of society, why are there so many more people with intellectual disabilities incarcerated?


Provincial governments have made sweeping modernizations to the way people with intellectual disabilities are integrated into their home community – however, is it possible that we have replaced one form of institutionalization with another, poorer option? People First of Canada defines an institution as “any place in which people who have been labeled as having an intellectual disability are isolated, segregated and/or congregated. An institution is any place where people do not have, or are not allowed to exercise control over their day to day decisions. An institution is not defined merely by its size.”

There are varying viewpoints on this issue, but if people with intellectual disabilities are ‘released’ from more expensive facilities to communities that aren’t ready to support them, they ended up in the community temporarily but, often times, end up in prison. According to Still My Revolution, “People left institutions which were designed like prisons to go to prisons which are increasingly looking like institutions because of who is ending up there.”


Many people with disabilities live below the low-income cutoff, Canada’s definition of poverty. Often, the wages that they make are far lower than non-disabled people. Additionally, their living costs can be extraordinary compared to income or subsidy. Harshly penalizing acts such as stealing food, committing petty thefts, loitering, trespassing and committing other behaviours that are associated with mental illness, as well as engaging in sex work, and selling or doing drugs in order to make money does not take into account the context of poverty or barriers to success. Criminalizing small offenses transfers people with intellectual disabilities from one environment to another with worse quality of life without addressing the specific needs that would ‘solve’ this problem in the first place.

Able-ism and Other Barriers in the Prison System

Without empathic officers, counselors, judges, case workers, and prison workers, it is the person with an intellectual disability that becomes a victim. In every way, the prison system is designed to disempower inmates. For inmates with intellectual disabilities the system victimizes, not merely disempowers. Disabled World notes that, “After they become involved in the criminal justice system, people with intellectual disabilities are less likely to receive parole or probation and usually serve longer sentences because of an inability to understand or adapt to the rules of prison.” As victims of the prison system, people with intellectual disabilities can:

• Be denied appropriate accessibility options for day-to-day living
• Be easily influenced
• Be eager to please others
• Be easily targeted and victimized
• Believe the perpetrator is their ‘friend’
• Be less able or likely to report being victimized
• Be unaware of the seriousness or danger of a situation
• Not be considered a credible witness, even in situations where such concern is unwarranted
• Have very few ways to get help, get to a safe place, or receive counseling or victim services
• Believe that the way they have been treated is appropriate without understanding that victimization is a crime

Protecting the Rights of Inmates with Intellectual Disabilities

People with an intellectual disability are sometimes unable to protect their own rights – especially while being actively victimized. Most commonly, their reasons and responses include:

• A desire to hide their disability
• Confessing even if they are innocent
• Feeling overwhelmed by police presence
• Not understanding instructions or commands
• Confusion about who is responsible for the crime
• Saying things they believe the police want to hear
• Pretending to understand their rights when they do not
• Difficulties with describing details or facts of an offense
• Feeling upset at being detained or attempting to run away
• Being the first to leave a crime scene and the first to get caught

In addition to systemic under-training and under-staffing, the above factors are barriers to the inmates’ ability and willingness to participate in prison programs. Such programs include academic courses, training programs, addiction recovery programs, etc. Prison programming can help pass the time inside, obtain parole, and secure employment upon release. What evidence does the parole board have that a prisoner is ready for parole or is fully rehabilitated if he or she cannot participate in these opportunities?

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