Munib Lohrasbi, 25, first developed a passion helping people with disabilities while volunteering with Best Buddies, a nonprofit that works to create opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in high school. In college, he continued this work by volunteering with Goodwill and advocating for disability rights. While he loved working with people directly, he felt like he could do more to help by working at a macro level.
After college, Lohrasbi went to law school at the University of Maryland, where he worked in a criminal law clinic and then a disability law clinic with the National Association of the Deaf. Upon graduation from law school, he wanted to combine his passion for disability rights advocacy with his criminal justice and legal background.
The OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship presented Lohrasbi with the opportunity to design his own project that combined all of his passions. He will be working with Disability Rights Maryland (DRM) to improve conditions for people with disabilities in prison around the state. As the state’s designated protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, DRM has access to every prison in the state to inspect conditions and collect data. However, the agency has lacked capacity to undertake a comprehensive review.
Leveraging the statutory authority of DRM, Lohrasbi will inspect the state’s prison facilities and work with communities to improve conditions for people with disabilities in those facilities. The State Correctional Facilities Oversight Committee Project will look at a number of factors including how prisons are screening people as they are admitted, how inmates request reasonable accommodations and how quickly the prisons respond to those requests.
“This project combines all of my experiences and passions, so for me, it feels like it was meant to be,” Lohrasbi says.
Advocates have anecdotal evidence that prisons often ignore the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), especially when it comes to inmates with mental illnesses. Physical disabilities are more easily perceived, but many inmates with mental illnesses go undiagnosed, so they are unable to request reasonable accommodations. “We want to increase transparency and get some hard, reliable data that DRM and other advocates can rely on,” he says.
“Restrictive housing is another big issue because isolation can exacerbate mental health issues,” Lohrasbi says. Restrictive housing, which includes solitary confinement, is a commonly used punishment in prisons. While it might help control the prison population, for inmates with mental health issues, it can do more harm than good.
Once he has good data, Lohrasbi also wants to engage communities to develop recommendations for improving conditions in prisons. He will invite advocates, returning citizens and community members to roundtable discussions across the state. Any ideas for policy proposals will come from these meetings, which Lohrasbi will translate to actionable policy suggestions and present to wardens directly.
Lohrasbi sees his Fellowship as the starting point to reforming prisons across the state. Over the next 18 months, Lohrasbi hopes to inspect 12 of the 30 facilities in the state and begin to see improved conditions for people with disabilities in prisons. This might mean reducing the number of hours that someone spends in restrictive housing or streamlining the process for requesting accommodations.
“What is the point of prison?” Lohrasbi asks. “Many people view it as a deterrent or a punishment but not as a way to help prevent people from getting into trouble again. I want to change that.”