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In jail with a wheelchair

Accessibility in jails and stories of convicts in wheelchair

Accessibility in jails and stories of convicts in wheelchair

In a wheelchair in jail? For a long time this was a rare exception. In the past offenders with certain disabilities were often spared detention because jails were not accessible and respectively equipped to accommodate them.

In the meantime, this has changed: Some cells are built specifically for old and disabled offenders – in Switzerland, for example, in the correctional facility of Lenzburg AG in the Canton of Aargau and the correctional facility of Pöschwies in Regensdorf in the Canton of Zurich. We present you stories of wheelchair users in jail.

A resident of Vorarlberg without legs in jail for smuggling drugs

How the story of an Austrian shows, one can also be put in jail without legs. The then 47-year-old from Vorarlberg had smuggled more than one ton of hashish from Spain and the Netherlands mostly to Switzerland for five years. He hid the drug in the false bottom of his disability vehicle.

His hope, however, that nobody will check on a severely disabled person without legs, was destroyed: In April 2011 he was caught transporting 200 kilos of drugs. He was condemned to a sentence of ten years and put into prison in Stein in Lower Austria.

He is not the only prisoner in wheelchair there: When he was admitted, there were already 30 other inmates with disabilities who were serving a sentence, seven of them in a wheelchair. They are not in normal cells as the other detainees but in a specialty institution for people with health conditions. There are a physician and nurses available 24/7. Also the prison is mostly accessible due to ramps and lifts.

Like the other inmates, also the ones with disabilities perform certain tasks. Instead of the former “oakum picking” they sort and fold leaflets or running schedules for a marathon.

rollstühle im gefängnis

(Source: Toni Wölfl /

The prison in Stein is an exception with respect to its accessibility among Austria’s prisons. And also in Germany and Switzerland there is the need to catch up: In 2019 a study by The Swiss Centre of Expertise in Prison and Probation showed that many institutions do not have specific infrastructure for older inmates in place. Only a minority of the jail buildings are wheelchair accessible or have accessible washrooms or showers. This is a problem not only for older people but also for inmates using a wheelchair. In light of an ever aging society – and therefore ever more elderly inmates – it is necessary to make numerous adaptations for more accessibility.

In the USA convicts use their wheelchairs as weapons and throw eggs at guards

As we all know, many people own weapons in the USA. A relatively high number of people are therefore in a wheelchair because they were hit by a bullet. According to the US National Spinal Cord Injury Database, gunshot wounds caused 12.2 % of all spinal cord injuries in the USA during the period 2010 – 2018. All the more surprising is that some of them are in jail because they have committed an act of violence or they owned weapons without a license.

rollstuhlfahrer maurice im gefängnis

A gunfight left Maurice disabled. He was accused of having shot and injured his girlfriend and her colleague while being in a wheelchair. (Source: Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times)

The inmates of Cook County Jail in Chicago live in a barren dormitory made of concrete. Rows of steel bedframes, tables and metal stools are screwed into the floor. The inmates often play cards or watch TV. About 60 wheelchair users are held in this prison. Also among them grim fights are happening. Two inmates took their wheelchairs apart to use parts as a weapon. One used the small wheel at the front of his chair, the other removed a grab rail. This is what they used to beat up a third inmate who used crutches. He suffered a head injury and had to be taken to hospital.

Inmates in wheelchair, however, normally don’t need to fear any attacks by other convicts. If someone attacks a man in wheelchair, he loses respect from the other convicts and will likely be beaten up himself. The code of conduct among themselves is of great importance for inmates. Some convicts try to abuse their own situation of being in a wheelchair: They throw, for example, eggs on the guards to provoke them to use violence. Their goal is to get a good motif for a lawsuit and therefore to obtain advantages.

Wheelchairs also serve as hiding place for drugs and other contraband. Some even use their colostomy bag to hide weapons. This makes the guards’ search for weapons rather unpleasant.

Two inmates tell: Johnathan Lacy…

The video above shows Johnathan Lacy. He was 29 years old back then and one of approximately 60 wheelchair users in Cook County Jail. He suffered spinal cord injury when a security guard shot at him during a bank robbery. Lacy also had a weapon with him. The bullet is still in his spine.

“I had to retrain my bowel movements and bladder. It is completely different. When I was locked up, I received no therapy. All I went through I did on my own, all by myself. I hated using catheters. I hated having to put on diapers.”

The bank robbery got Lacy into jail for eight years. However, he had not smartened up whatsoever after that: After only one year after his release, he had to return, this time due to owning an unlicensed weapon which he supposedly also had used.

In jail Lacy keeps in shape by doing hundreds of push ups and dips on his wheelchair or between the bunk beds. Because also after his release he will again return to his world where violence and gangs dominate the streets.

rollstuhlfahrer johnathan lacy im gefängnis

Johnathan Lacy (Source: Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times)

… and Steven Bramlett

This video shows Steven Bramlett when he was 34 years old and also in Cook County Jail because he supposedly participated in a gang murder. Bramlett himself had become victim of a car robbery when he was hit by four bullets and remained paralyzed. In the video he talks about his difficulties to mentally cope with his spinal cord injury. He also shows his “not disabled” tattoo, which he had done directly above the bullet hole:

rollstuhlfahrer steven bramlett im gefängnis

Steven Bramlett shows his leg braces which help him move short distances in jail. (Source: Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times)

Finally the link to a video from the German TV program “Weltspiegel” with the title “USA: No mercy behind bars”. It shows how some jails due to wheelchairs and walkers now appear like a seniors’ home. America’s jail population is aging because the jurisdiction hardly allows for amnesty or early release. The video presents stories of old and sick inmates as well as former convicts who were released only after many years at an advanced retirement age.

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