How can one be expected to demonstrate something they are incapable of, and what if that something meant the difference between freedom and remaining in prison? Thousands of inmates in California face this issue, and many are kept incarcerated for life without any recognition of their cognitive capabilities.

Take Maria’s story, for example; she is a client I became familiar with as a student working in the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s (“USC”) Post-Conviction Justice Project (“PCJP”). Maria had extensive cognitive impairments that went undiscovered while incarcerated in a California prison for nearly three decades. Because of this, Maria was denied parole an astounding six times with the parole board citing lack of “insight” each time. Maria’s continued denials persisted despite state-issued psychological evaluations concluding that her intellectual functioning was minimal.

Unfortunately, Maria’s predicament is not uncommon. There are several similarly situated inmates who are unable to effectively advocate for themselves due to their cognitive impairments, yet they are not provided with necessary accommodations. As a result, individuals are denied parole even though they do not pose a current danger to society. This culminates in the gravest deprivation of liberty without due process—denial of their freedom.