The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Black disabled teen went unheard in prison. People are now listening.

Neli Latson speaks at a White House event alongside people who hold the power to change the experiences of Black disabled Americans

Neli Latson at the White House on Thursday. (Lisa Greenman)
7 min

For a long while, it seemed no one in power wanted to listen to Reginald “Neli” Latson.

Not when he was in handcuffs.

Not when he was in jail.

Not when he was in prison, spending day after day in solitary confinement.

During those years, he had to rely on his mother and his attorneys to speak for him, and he had to hope that law enforcement officials and lawmakers listened to them.

That’s what makes what happened on a recent morning significant.

On Thursday, Latson found himself where he never expected: walking through the White House, and then sitting at a table with people who hold the power to help change the experiences of Black disabled Americans.

On that day, Latson, who is Black and autistic, didn’t have to fight to be heard. People were eager to listen to him.

“It may sound like a cliche, but being here today is not only an honor, it is a dream come true,” Latson said while sitting at that table with White House advisers and federal officials. “For years, when I was locked up in solitary confinement, I daydreamed about getting out and telling my story. … I wanted to stand up and speak out, so that other autistic people, and other Black people, and other Black and autistic people would not experience the terrible things that happened to me. Thoughts like that sustained me through terrible times. So being here today at the White House really is that dream come true.”

Latson told them that he is now 31 but he was an 18-year-old high school student when his “life was hijacked.”

He was living with his mom and sister in Stafford County, Va., at the time. Early one morning, he decided to walk to his local library, and as he waited for it to open, someone called the sheriff’s department and reported him as a “suspicious male, possibly in possession of a gun.”

Latson didn’t have a gun, and authorities would later say the caller hadn’t actually seen a gun. But by the time that crucial detail was sorted out, it was too late. A deputy grabbed Latson, who, like many autistic individuals, is sensitive to touch, and it set off his fight-or-flight instinct. Latson was arrested and charged with assaulting the deputy.

“I regret that. I’m sorry I hurt him. And I have apologized to the officer,” Latson told those at the table. “After I was arrested, my mother tried to explain about my disability and what had happened. She also said, loudly, that this would not have happened to a White student. But this was 2010. The country wasn’t yet talking about these issues and the prosecutor did not want to understand. He charged me with serious felonies and got me sentenced to 10 years in prison. At my trial, the prosecutor actually used the r-word against me.”

I first wrote about Latson in 2010, after he got arrested and his mother, Lisa Alexander, launched an online campaign to bring attention to his case. She created a website and Facebook page titled “A Voice for Neli,” and, through them, tried desperately to get people to understand that her son didn’t belong behind bars and would not be there if he weren’t Black and disabled.

Remember Neli Latson, the black teen with autism who seemed ‘suspicious’ sitting outside a library? Ten years after his arrest, he still isn’t fully free.

But no one who held the power to free him wanted to listen — not then. It would take years, ones that saw Latson held for long stretches in solitary confinement and once Tasered and strapped in a restraint chair for more than nine hours, before he would receive a conditional pardon from then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). That pardon, which came in 2015, allowed him to leave prison and live in a group home. In 2021, Latson received another pardon from then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that ended his time under state supervision, granting him the freedom to choose where and how he lives. (Latson is still hoping to receive an unconditional pardon so he can get those felony convictions wiped from his record.)

“This moment is so surreal,” Alexander told me when I saw her and Latson on Thursday. “From where we began, with my son in prison and solitary confinement, for the White House to recognize him as an advocate, it sends a powerful statement that things are turning around.”

Latson’s experience could serve as a case study on how the national conversation about disabilities has changed. When he was arrested, few were talking about the intersection of race, ethnicity and disabilities. Now “intersectionality” is a hashtag. Now, people in the highest offices are thinking about these issues and listening to those who understand them best because they have lived them.

The event Latson participated in was billed by the White House as a Black History Month roundtable with disabled young leaders, and it was viewed online by people across the nation.

At the table with Latson sat four other young Black disabled advocates — Elijah Armstrong, Jalyn Radziminski, Shawn Aleong and Raven Sutton — who also shared their stories. Sutton, who was the first deaf contestant on Netflix’s “The Circle,” used sign language to describe how she might not have escaped a deadly fire in Silver Spring, Md., on Feb. 18 if someone hadn’t been in her apartment to alert her. She said that before the fire occurred, she had requested a strobe light be installed in her apartment because she can’t hear a fire alarm, but it was not provided.

“You can’t talk about diversity and not include disabilities and deaf people in that conversation,” she said. “You can’t talk about community and not involve people with disabilities in that conversation. It affects our lives. And if you continue to neglect us, you’re going to end up killing us.”

Tara Murray, special assistant to the president and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, served as the moderator for the event. Afterward, in a written statement, she said of the participants: “We were inspired by their perseverance in the face of adversity and will continue to prioritize discussions that advance racial equity, accessibility, and disability inclusion.”

Lisa Greenman, who served as one of Latson’s attorneys, attended the event with him and his family. She described it as a “tremendous day” for Latson, but her excitement for him was tempered by the reality of what he went through in the years leading up to it.

“While this is a feel-good moment, this is not a feel-good story,” she said. “No one should walk away from this feeling good about the system. The system did not work here. It devoured a person and did everything but destroy him.”

The attorneys who worked on his case treated it as a death penalty case, because they believed his life depended on it, she said.

“But for truly extraordinary interventions — interventions that most people have no hope of mustering — Neli would still be locked up,” she said. “Or he would be dead.”

Neli Latson is — finally — free. It only took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about race and disability.

When I spoke to Latson after his last pardon, he told me that the experience had left him “changed” and “scared.” He also said: “If it weren’t for my mother, who would have listened to me? Who is going to listen to me when she’s not here?”

On Thursday, as he spoke about the improvements the country has made toward protecting Black disabled Americans and how we still have “a long way to go,” he knew plenty of people were listening.