Cognitive impairments, disabilities affecting communication, and laws designed to prevent prisoners from filing "frivolous" lawsuits against their keepers - like the Clinton-era Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) - make it extremely difficult for some individuals to assert their rights behind bars. I received the following letter from one such prisoner nearly two years ago, when I didn't really know what I was doing, and I wasn't much help to him. It was somewhat outdated then, and getting updates from Daniel has been hard, I presume because he depends on the kindness of others to help him write. The last letter I sent him was July 23; I haven't heard back yet. As I understand it, though, not much has changed for him.
According to his record, on November 2, 2001, Daniel killed three people. I don't know how; I always presumed it was in the accident in which he was so badly injured himself, since the convictions were for manslaughter. That's a lot of devastation to cause in one fell swoop - and a lot to live with, for both the survivors and the one who destroyed those lives.
Daniel was sentenced to three consecutive ten year terms in state prison for his crimes. He has lost his freedom, been exiled from society, and grown estranged from his family as a consequence of his actions. Short of death, incarceration and lifetime felonization are the most severe penalties we can hand out to people; incarceration is in itself a special kind of torture. Prisoners of war and kidnap victims are treated for PTSD even if they were well cared for by their captors, because simply being involuntarily seized and imprisoned causes terror and trauma. We don't need to add individualized torment and humiliation on top of what we have already decided to dish out to those we have imprisoned. That is cruel and unusual, and barred by the US Constitution for a reason. It's not just becuase of what it does to them when prisoners are neglected or abused- it's because of what it does to us, too. Our own humanity is diminished in the process of doing so to another.
When I received Daniel's letter I spent my energy trying to get help from the organizations that I thought were supposed to intervene in cases like his, to no avail. What I learned in my quest was that the DOJ answers almost every SOS from prisons with a form letter denying any intent to investigate, and the resources of the American Civil Liberties Union are quite limited. The Arizona Center for Disability Law - which is the only Protection and Advocacy agency in the state for people with disabilities refused at the time to serve disabled individuals in custody, simply because they were in prison. As far as I know, except for lending technical assistance and the weight of their P&A authority to the Parsons v Ryan litigation, they still don't serve disabled prisoners. I called a few attorneys at the time but found no takers; Daniel, of course, can't afford to retain one, so they'd need to be willing to take his case on pro bono.
The ACLU-AZ and ACDL now have their hands full in with Parsons v Ryan, the class action suit they're pursuing against the AZ Department of Corrections for substandard health care. Hopefully that will ultimately help prisoners like Daniel. But any settlement or judgement that comes out of it - if there is one - will be years down the road - he's suffering now, and the degree to which he can regain any functioning through physical therapy declines with time.
The matter of accommodating people with disabilities for moral and legal reasons aside, someday this man will be free again, and totally dependent on public benefits if we can't help him engage in rehabilitative activity and learn to compensate for his disabilities soon. Daniel was 19 when this tragedy happened that landed him in prison; he will only be 47 when he is released, according to his earliest supervised release date. He can still be productive and contribute to his community once free - unless we leave him to waste away in prison as he has been, growing more dependent and more bitter with the passing of the years.
I believe the conditions of confinement that Daniel has endured, as well as the neglect of his requests for reasonable accommodations, are an egregious violation of the Americans' with Disabilities Act, and he has suffered both physical and psychological harm that was not intended by his sentencing judge as a result. If there are any attorneys or disability rights advocates reading this now who think they may be in a position to help this man, please contact me, Peggy Plews, at 480-580-6807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.