How common are thighs in prison

With the wheelchair in jail

Accessibility in prisons and stories of inmates in wheelchairs

In a wheelchair in jail? For a long time this was the big exception. In the past, offenders with certain disabilities often avoided detention because the prisons were not barrier-free and adequately equipped to accommodate them.

In the meantime, things look different: Special cells are being built for old and disabled inmates - in Switzerland, for example, in the Lenzburg AG correctional facility and the Pöschwies correctional facility in Regensdorf ZH. We present you the stories of wheelchair users in «jail».

Vorarlberger without legs is imprisoned for drug smuggling

As the story of an Austrian shows, you can go to jail without legs. The then 47-year-old from Vorarlberg had smuggled more than a ton of hashish from Spain and the Netherlands, mainly into Switzerland, over the course of five years. He hid the intoxicants in the false floor of his disabled vehicle.

But his hope that no one would control a severely disabled person with no legs was not fulfilled: In April 2011 he was caught transporting 200 kilos of drugs. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and was taken to the Stein penal institution in Lower Austria.

There he is not the only inmate in a wheelchair: when he was arrested, 30 other inmates with disabilities were serving their sentences, seven of them with wheelchairs. They are not in normal cells like the other prisoners, but in a special hospital. A doctor and nursing staff are available there 24 hours a day. The prison is largely barrier-free thanks to ramps and lifts.

Like the other inmates, the prisoners with disabilities also carry out various work. Instead of the earlier “bag gluing”, they sort and fold leaflets or the running plans for a marathon.

(Source: Toni Wölfl /

In terms of accessibility, the institution in Stein is an exception among Austria's prisons. There is also some catching up to do in Germany and Switzerland: In 2019, a study by the Swiss Competence Center for Prisons showed that many prisons do not have a special infrastructure for older inmates. Only a minority of prisons have wheelchair-accessible buildings or stepless toilets and showers. This is just as problematic for the elderly as it is for other prisoners in wheelchairs. In view of an aging society - and with it more and more older prisoners - many adjustments are still needed in the penal system to make it more accessible.

In America, inmates use their wheelchairs as weapons and throw eggs at guards

It is well known that weapons are widespread in the United States. A relatively large number of people are therefore in wheelchairs because they have been 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 United States in the period 2010-2018. It is all the more astonishing that some victims are in prison because they have committed acts of violence themselves or because they have illicit weapons.

Maurice has been paralyzed since a shootout. He was charged with shooting his friend and colleague from a wheelchair himself. (Source: Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times)

Inmates at Cook County Prison in Chicago live in a barren concrete dormitory. Rows of steel beds, tables, and metal stools are screwed into the floor. The prisoners often play cards or watch television. Around 60 wheelchair users are in this prison.

There are brutal fights among them too. Two inmates dismantled their wheelchairs to use parts of them as weapons. One took off the small wheel at the front of his chair, the other removed a handrail. They used it to beat a third inmate who was on crutches. He suffered a head injury and had to be taken to the hospital.

In contrast, inmates in wheelchairs do not normally have to fear violence from other prisoners. If you approach a man in a wheelchair, you lose the respect of the other inmates and would probably be beaten up yourself. The code among each other is of great importance for the prisoners.

Some inmates try to take advantage of their own situation in a wheelchair: They throw eggs at the guards to provoke them to use violence. Your goal is to get a good motive for a lawsuit and thus benefits.

Wheelchairs also act as hiding places for drugs and other contraband goods. Some even use their full colostomy pouches to hide weapons there. This makes the guards' search for weapons very uncomfortable.

Two prisoners tell: Johnathan Lacy ...

The video above shows Johnathan Lacy. He was 29 at the time and one of around 60 wheelchair users in Cook County Jail. He was paralyzed when a security guard shot him during an armed bank robbery in 2005. Lacy was also carrying a gun at the time. The bullet is still in his spine.

“I had to retrain my bowel movements and my bladder. It's completely different. When I was locked up, I had no therapy. Everything I've been through, I've been through myself, all by myself. I hated using catheters. I hated putting on a diaper. "

Lacy spent eight years in prison for the robbery. But he was by no means purified afterwards: Just a year after his release, he had to go back, this time because of possession of an illegal weapon, which he is also said to have fired.

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

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

... and Steven Bramlett

This video shows Steven Bramlett, then 34 years old and also in Cook County Jail for allegedly participating in a gang murder. Bramlett himself had been the victim of a car theft 16 years earlier, in which he was shot four times and remained paralyzed. In the video he talks about his difficulties in mentally processing the paraplegia. He also shows his “not handicapped” tattoo that he got the stab right above the bullet point:

Steven Bramlett shows off his greaves, which help him walk short distances in prison. (Source: Jessica Koscielniak / Chicago Sun-Times)

Finally, here is the link to a video from the ARD program “Weltspiegel” with the title “USA: No Mercy - Old People Behind Bars”. It shows how many a prison now looks like a retirement home thanks to wheelchairs and walkers. America's prison population is aging because the law hardly allows pardons and early releases. The video presents stories of old and sick inmates as well as former inmates who were only released after a long period of high retirement age.