Dr. Liat Ben-Moshe, assistant professor of disability studies, wants to bridge the gap between studying disability and incarceration.
“It was odd to me that there weren’t more connections between disability studies and prison studies when I first began doing this work. Now, after doing this for more than a decade, there are more people, organizations and scholarship on this topic,” she said. “First, there is the high proportion of disabled — psychiatric, cognitive, learning or other disabilities — in prison, a phenomenon not often discussed. Then there are so many sites of confinement for people with disabilities, even outside of prison settings — nursing homes, psych hospitals, institutions. We need to understand all these as sites of incarceration.”Ben-Moshe recently was recognized for her outstanding work with one of the American Association of University Women’s American Fellowships for the 2017-18 academic year. These fellowships support women scholars who are completing dissertations, planning research leave, or preparing research for publication.
Her forthcoming book, “Politics of (En)Closure,” focuses on movements to abolish prisons and deinstitutionalization of mental and intellectual health institutions.
“I am incredibly honored to be receiving such a prestigious and competitive fellowship, and I see it as a recognition for my work on social movements that resist incarceration. But I also see it as a recognition of the field of disability studies and specifically of UT’s role as a leader in the field of disability studies, as we have currently the only on campus bachelor of arts degree in disability studies in the U.S.,” Ben-Moshe said.
Studies have shown that more than half of inmates in local and state prisons received clinical diagnosis or treatment by a mental health professional. Ben-Moshe believes the solution to this troubling statistic lies in having a better understanding of what is called mental illness.
“When people who do prison advocacy or critical prison studies work discuss disability, it is not as an identity and a culture, but as a deficit. Those within disability advocacy and work really need to learn more about prison and prison abolition,” she explained. “The intersectional nature of oppression and its resistance here are vital.
“For example, in my new book, I discuss what prison reformers and abolitionists can learn from deinstitutionalization, which was another mass movement to close carceral settings such as psychiatric hospitals, institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. People didn’t think it will happen; it was called utopia, unrealistic. But it did happen, and we can learn from it about how to rely less on settings that segregate people, like institutions and prisons, and more about how to deal with harm and difference in the community.”