On the Outs: Reentry for Inmates With Disabilities
Advocates for curbing mass incarceration have succeeded in transforming the issue from a niche topic into a mainstream political movement. The movement has called out racial disparities in the system, the long-term effects on entire neighborhoods over generations, and the profiteering by private companies that get rich when people get locked up—among many, many other overlapping and intersecting issues. In 2013 I joined a campaign at the advocacy film company Brave New Films to make films tackling these issues. We and our partners made progress. Only years later did I come to realize that I, and the movement, had overlooked a big part of the story.
When I came to Seattle in 2015, I joined AVID, which stands for Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities. Through investigations, reports, videos, and, when necessary, legal action, AVID seeks reform of correctional facilities on behalf of people with disabilities in the system. This focus on corrections reform was unique in the disability advocacy field but so too was the focus on disability issues unique in corrections reform. At least 30% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates have a disability. That means that a large percentage of the thousands of people released every year will face not only the stigma associated with their incarceration, but society’s biases against them because of their disabilities. This was the missing story.
We knew that access to educational programs inside prisons could improve outcomes for formerly incarcerated people once out, but what happens when a blind prisoner tries to succeed in GED classes and is not provided audio or Braille materials? What happens if a person with a mental illness requires regular medical visits and prescriptions, but no plan is set up to connect that prisoner to treatment on the outside? Access to housing is critical to interrupting recidivism, but what if no accessible housing options exist for a former prisoner with a mobility disability?
Our country cannot tackle criminal justice reform without addressing disability-related issues. That is why we set out to capture the experience of disabled individuals as they reentered society, expecting that they would face unique obstacles on top of the known barriers to reentry that other inmates encounter. To make On the Outs, we identified three people with disabilities in Washington State prisons and planned to follow them from the end of their incarceration until several months after their release. Prisons don’t often allow filmmakers access to prisoners. We had a way around that. The AVID team is based at Disability Rights Washington, which is the state protection and advocacy system, or P&A, for Washington State. P&As exist in every US state and territory and command federally mandated access authority to investigate any facility where people with disabilities are, including schools, hospitals, nursing facilities—and state prisons. The prisons had to let us in, and we brought our cameras with us.
We witnessed the reentry process through the experience of Tyrone, Kara, and Eldorado, three Washington State prisoners. Each was reentering society with different concerns and after different lengths of incarceration, but all three experienced the confusion, frustration, and fear that came with going back to the world with few financial resources and few connections to the supports they knew they needed. Roughly two thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of release. Would Tyrone, Kara, and Eldorado make it on the “outs”?
On the Outs continues to play at film festivals, conferences, and other live events, and is now available for viewing on YouTube. We want everyone who is working for criminal justice reform to understand the issues people with disabilities face in the system, and we want disability advocates to understand how over-incarceration plays a role in the marginalization of the disability community. The AVID project, and this film, tells these overlooked stories.
Jordan Melograna is the director/co-producer of On the Outs: Reentry for Inmates With Disabilities.