Access Living’s Disability And Incarceration Initiative

As an organization led and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities, Access Living has served people with a wide range of disabilities from a peer standpoint since 1980. We work to support our consumers as they define and work to achieve positive goals for themselves like employment and housing to live independently. Some of the people we support have also been involved with the Cook County criminal justice system. For this group of community members, self-determination and empowerment are made all that much harder because their disability needs were often neglected or completely overlooked while they were in the system. Time and again, we have been made aware of situations where people with disabilities would have benefited from supports and diversion rather than incarceration. We believe it is our responsibility to be part of the solution to reduce incarceration in our community through empowering leaders with disabilities to share their knowledge and input.

In 2018, the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge awarded Access Living a one-year planning grant to research, analyze, and report on how to reduce the incarceration of people with disabilities from a cross-disability standpoint, with an initial focus on those involved with the Cook County criminal justice system. During the grant period, we will review the issues faced by people with disabilities at key decision points in the Cook County criminal justice system from diversion, arrest, booking, to reentry back into the community.

Our goal is to learn from, support, and amplify existing work. People with disabilities most likely to be incarcerated are from marginalized groups—including but not limited to people of color, people of low income, people who are LGBTQQIA, immigrants, and others—for that reason an intersectional approach and analysis is at the core of our work.

The end product of our project will be a paper offering cross-disability recommendations for reducing incarceration of people with disabilities, with an emphasis on Cook County. This will serve as a resource for community advocates and Cook County criminal justice stakeholders in addressing factors resulting in over-incarceration of people with disabilities.

The Access Living Policy Analyst, Elesha Nightingale, is partnering with Access Living’s existing disability/racial justice efforts led by Racial Justice Organizer, Candace Coleman, and the Access Living racial justice organizing group Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP). Elesha is also working closely with the Illinois Justice Project, which is supporting the research process for the paper. The project supervisor is Amber Smock, Access Living’s Director of Advocacy.

As part of the project and our commitment to center the voices of those impacted, Elesha will be interviewing system stakeholders and people with disabilities who have been impacted by the Cook County criminal justice system. If you would like to be interviewed for this project, or can help us reach people who should be interviewed, please contact Elesha Nightingale, Disability and Incarceration Policy Analyst for Access Living, (312) 640-2131 or .

The goal of the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge is to bring together leaders and organizations to end the overuse and misuse of jails, and to rethink justice systems and implement data-driven strategies to safely reduce jail populations.  The Challenge furthermore seeks to reduce America's reliance on jails by developing strategies that take into account the particular needs of communities that have been disproportionately impacted by law enforcement.

About Elesha Nightingale
Elesha Nightingale is a policy analyst at Access Living researching disability and incarceration in Cook County and nationally. She started at Access Living in 2016 as the coordinator of the Disability Justice Mentoring Collective (DJMC), a cross-disability youth mentoring group and in 2018 additionally took on coordinating a leadership workshop for CPS youth with developmental disabilities. In 2017, MENTOR Illinois honored Elesha’s work selecting DJMC as one of the top ten mentoring programs in the state of Illinois. 

Elesha is a law student at The John Marshall Law School, slated to receive her J.D. in 2021. Previously, she earned a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Southern Oregon University. Elesha’s career began in Oregon in law enforcement, first employed in the jail and later as a police officer. Elesha worked in Utah, under the Housing First social policy model, locating housing for homeless young adults with disabilities and homeless youth who aged out of foster care system. Throughout her career, she gained expertise and facilitated trainings in intimate partner violence and crisis intervention. She previously sat on the Family Court Team, Batters Intervention Team, the Jackson County Council Against and Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Elesha is an advocate for criminal justice reform and restorative justice, which stem from being in the juvenile and foster care systems as a youth. Recognizing the stark disparity of impoverished, minority, immigrant, and disabled populations touched by the justice system, she advocates for systemic reform. Elesha’s passion for justice and fairness drive her efforts to improve the relationships between institutions and the populations affected by them with the end-goal of creating stronger safer communities for all, while simultaneously reducing community reliance on those systems.

Elesha Nightingale
Disability and Incarceration Policy Analyst