Disability, Policing, and Punishment: An Intersectional Approach
Posted: 12 Jan 2023
Date Written: 2022
Disabled people of color are uniquely vulnerable to policing and punishment. Proponents of police reform and, more recently, police abolition note that disabled people, particularly people with psychiatric disabilities, are vulnerable to citation and arrest.
Indeed, data on the high percentages of people in prisons and jails who report having a diagnosed disability lend support to this claim. Some advocates have referred to the criminalization of mental illness as a way to describe these vulnerabilities and ground their calls for change in the criminal legal system. Yet, even the compelling charge that mental illnesses are criminalized, or that prisons and jails are the “new asylums,” fails to fully account for the ways that race and disability work in tandem to render disabled people of color vulnerable to criminal legal system involvement. A more comprehensive account of mass incarceration and how it produces disability-based subordination is needed.
In this Essay, I provide a contemporary intersectional analysis of race, gender, and disability — namely, the experiences of disabled people of color in the criminal legal system, with a particular focus on policing and punishment systems. Doing so, I argue, demonstrates more specifically the unique vulnerabilities to policing and punishment that disabled people experience as a class and is more attuned to the particular vulnerabilities of disabled people of color. The sections that follow move beyond the criminalization of the mental illness frame and instead frame dangerousness and criminality as racist and ableist constructs that have been grafted onto “mental illness.” The Essay then moves to a discussion of police violence and mass incarceration, all while adding a disability lens to extant race-based critiques.
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