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Disability advocacy helps ease the re-entry process.

The DC Bar Foundation is proud to support the work of our grantee organizations. The DC Jailand Prison Advocacy Project (JPAP) and Disability Rights DC (DRDC), under DCFB grantee University Legal Services, is one of the programs that the Foundation funds. This Q&A highlights what JPAP is and how it is helping DC residents with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.

What is the DC Jail and Prison Advocacy Project (JPAP), and how did it start?

As the federally mandated protection and advocacy organization for DC residents with disabilities, Disability Rights DC (DRDC) has statutory authority to monitor and investigate DC institutions that treat people with psychiatric disabilities. In 2007, advocate Phillip Fornaci approached our executive director Jane Brown about optimizing our mandated authority to help incarcerated people with disabilities. JPAP was born—an advocacy program to improve jail and prison conditions for DC adults with psychiatric and/or intellectual disabilities and remove re-entry barriers.

How has being a DCBF grantee helped develop the JPAP program?

About 44% of people in jails have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Fifteen years ago, few local funders beyond DCBF recognized the necessity of specialized representation for those at the intersections of psychiatric/intellectual disabilities, race, and criminal system involvement. DCBF launched the program and gave other funders the confidence to invest in this work. JPAP would not exist without DCBF’s funding.

Part of JPAP’s work is helping the formerly incarcerated with their re-entry needs. How long does that support last, and what does that support look like?

We start working with residents 4-6 months prior to their release, and help lasts as long as needed—a median of 12 months. Our advocacy is individualized and can include applying for benefits, securing identification, shepherding people through the housing voucher process, and collaborating with our client’s family and friends to help create a support network. We hold providers accountable and advocate for supervision accommodations. Whether legal or non-legal advocacy, the foundation of our work is client-centered and -led relationships.

Can you share one client story that shows the impact of JPAP’s work?

Elizabeth Palagallo (pictured above) bounced between prison and homelessness for decades. Like many of our clients, she struggled with supervision requirements that inadvertently contributed to her housing instability and recidivism. Most recently, Ms. Palagallo was ordered to complete five years of supervision. With JPAP’s support and successful completion of 2.5 years of supervision, Ms. Palagallo was granted early termination of supervision. Ms. Palagallo is finally free and living in her own apartment.

Last year, JPAP celebrated 15 years. What has helped sustain this program for so long?

Despite the great need, JPAP is often the only organization in the room advocating for the needs of DC residents with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. JPAP is sustained by DRDC’s unwavering commitment and the critical support of DCBF and other funders, including individual donors. Our national association, the National Disability Rights Network, recognized our work with the 2022 Advocacy Award. We don’t work for awards, but it means the world to be recognized by our peers.

Is there any program or service that JPAP would like to introduce in the future?

Many residents in jail or prison qualify for Supplemental Security Income/Supplemental Security Disability Insurance (SSI/SSDI) benefits and can apply prior to release. Applications are long and arduous, and decisions take four to six months or longer. JPAP plans to recruit and teach a coalition of pro bono attorneys to prepare successful applications for residents close to release so they can receive their benefits as soon as possible. These benefits can make the difference between sleeping in a cell and sleeping safely at home.

The work JPAP does for incarcerated individuals facing mental illness is profound. Tell me a little about the JPAP team that helps move this work forward.

We like to say that JPAP is a “small but mighty” team of five people, most of whom share some of the same experiences as our clients—as returning citizens, people with disabilities, and people from similar trauma backgrounds, poverty, homelessness, and racial injustice. We genuinely love our work and root for our client’s successes against all odds. “JPAPers” view success through a different lens, recognizing that staying out of jail for two years may be the most time an individual has spent in the community since childhood.


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