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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Prison and Autism

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss interactions between the justice system and autistic people.

At AP, Claudia Lauer reports on the Neurodevelopmental Residential Treatment Unit at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Albion:

There is no comprehensive count of how many prisoners in the U.S. have autism or intellectual disabilities, though some studies estimate more than 4% are autistic and almost 25% reported having cognitive impairments, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics — nearly twice the rate of each in the overall population. Many advocates believe the number could be much higher because of underdiagnosis before prison or because of ineffectual or nonexistent screening at some corrections departments.

The Neurodevelopmental Residential Treatment Unit, located roughly 20 miles (32 kilometers) outside of Erie, Pennsylvania, was started about three years ago and is the only facility of its kind in the state. The unit houses about 45 men — a small population that helps staff focus on individual treatment and limits some of the sensory stimulation of prison, Soliwoda said.

There’s an exercise yard not accessible by the prison’s general population, and prisoners stay in the unit to receive their medication and see specialized treatment staff. They can check out puzzles, yoga mats or drawing supplies to help them cope in overwhelming moments. One prisoner spends hours every day juggling in the common area to help calm his mind — something that wouldn’t be allowed in most units.


 The unit at Albion requires corrections officers to undergo regular training on de-escalation and crisis intervention to maintain a secure environment while offering accommodations. In Indiana, where there isn’t a specialized developmental disability unit, Nick Stellema, the state's Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, has helped corrections staff with tools to communicate with nonverbal autistic prisoners.

 Stellema and other advocates are wary of segregating prisoners with disabilities, noting that the ADA is meant to ensure people can integrate with others, even in detention.

“In the free world, these individuals have to interact with everyone, not just with other people with disabilities,” he said. “I think the whole system would benefit from a better understanding of what an accommodation can be.”

But other advocates say separating prisoners with these disabilities is the best option.

“One of the biggest things we hear is they are acting up and getting themselves put in solitary, and that is even more devastating for them,” said Brian Kelmar, president and founder of the nonprofit organization Decriminalize Developmental Disabilities. “What we’ve seen is, after solitary, the ways they have learned to interact all reverse. They regress from all gains they’ve made.”