The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into even greater relief the inequalities Disabled people face in our society. For incarcerated people, these inequalities increase exponentially in deadly, life-altering ways.
This project developed from our personal interests in disability justice and prison abolition, conversations with abolitionist attorneys and advocates, and the spotlight the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on practically non-existent medical care within carceral systems across the country. Prisons and jails are intentionally shrouded in secrecy, and we envision this project as part of the countless efforts to bring those secrets to light and hopefully create meaningful change. As two Disabled law students, we found ourselves uniquely positioned to have these conversations by drawing on both our legal and personal backgrounds. For us, the personal is very much political.
During the month of October 2020, we conducted interviews with ten disabled and/or chronically ill individuals incarcerated in county jail. We later worked with each of them to turn those interviews into narratives describing their experiences at the jail, particularly in light of their disabilities or chronic conditions. We then reached out to disabled, neurodivergent, and/or chronically ill artists to collaborate with us on this project by bringing the narratives to life through visual media.
You will no doubt notice that in these narratives, we have not included the individuals’ names, the medications they take, the location of the jail, and other potentially identifying information. We made this decision in conjunction with the interviewees to protect their privacy and shield them from potential retaliation by jail staff.
We are immensely grateful to the interviewees for sharing their time, energy, and lived experiences with us, two complete strangers. We are also grateful to the attorney who introduced us to each of them and invaluably supported us along the way. Further, we cannot thank the artists enough for being not only willing but excited, to contribute their time and talents to this project. Please take some time to read through the experiences of those we interviewed, learn more about the artists who generously contributed to this project at the bottom of each narrative, and share these stories with others.
Despite considerable ongoing litigation, prisons have released almost no one due to coronavirus concerns, while jails have been largely reluctant to change policies that heighten the risk of COVID-19 exposure. As one interviewee told us after an officer on his pod tested positive for the coronavirus, "She gets to go home and quarantine, and I have to stay here in my cell and get sick." You will see the phrase “23-and-1” in the narratives, which refers to a policy currently in effect in the jail on which we focused. Under this form of lockdown, people are essentially being held in solitary confinement, only let out of their cells for one hour each day. Jails are overcrowded and often have poor air circulation, and we were repeatedly told that people are forced to use this one precious hour to clean their cells in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, giving them little time to exercise, shower, watch TV, or socialize.
Are we willing to accept this complete disregard for human life and health, on top of the torture to which many incarcerated people are already subjected? Are we truly satisfied with a society that condones refusal to treat someone’s cancer or Hepatitis-C, or throwing a person in solitary confinement for advocating for their needs? Change can only happen if each of us educates ourselves and those around us about the inhumane treatment of incarcerated people – including disabled or chronically ill incarcerated people – and commits to do something about it.
Learn. Check out Abolition and Disability Justice to learn more about how carceral systems, from jails to mental health facilities to policing, subject disabled people to violence and strip them of their agency.
Take Action. Support movements to pass important local legislation, like the Human Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act in New York. You can find more information on your state legislature here; then, call your legislators and urge them to support bills that advocate for the welfare of incarcerated people or create opportunities for decarceration.
Change requires those in positions of relative privilege to leverage their power in support of our collective community. Disability justice and abolition are inextricably intertwined. Donate, learn, and take action in furtherance of this common goal.
Kaitlin Grant 2020
Throughout the Breaking Point Project, we intentionally default to identity-first language when talking in broad strokes to emphasize the centrality and importance of disability to many disabled people’s lived experiences and identities. When it comes to particular individuals' identities, we use whatever language they prefer.
We hold an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist understanding of disability that also encompasses neurodivergence, Madness, and all others who identify with the disability community. We also follow Talila Lewis’ definition of ableism.
i keep asking
etching, aquatint, & monoprint
Benjamin Merritt 2020