Many people are still surprised to hear how many prisoners may have learning disabilities

It seems that many people are still surprised to hear how many prisoners may have learning disabilities.

Evidence from the Prison Reform Trust shows that up to 7% of adult prisoners have an IQ under 70; another 25% have an IQ under 80 (this is higher in children and young people). 60% of prisoners have problems with communication - either understanding or expressing themselves or both.

Prisoners with learning disabilities are five times more likely than other prisoners to experience control and restraint, three times more likely to experience segregation and three times more likely to have depression or anxiety. Serious concerns are still being raised about whether people with learning disabilities accused of crime will get a fair trial and, if found guilty, whether sentencing will take account of the reasonable adjustments they may need in order to comply with the sentence.

Last week we ran training for a team of criminal justice liaison and diversion practitioners. Their job is to work with people who have been arrested and who may have mental health problems, learning disabilities or learning difficulties. Highly skilled in mental health, they are meeting a range of people who may have a learning disability and many people with learning difficulties.

They wanted practical information about identifying people with a range of need, ways of adapting their practice, referral routes for specialist services, and resources. A major source of frustration was the lack of services and supports for people who did not fit the criteria for learning disability services. They felt that the likelihood of re-offending was high because of the lack of support available for this group of people.

We are contributing towards knowledge about supporting offenders with learning disabilities. We have Department of Health funding to adapt delivery of the Thinking Skills Programme to suit the needs of prisoners with a learning disability.

Currently prisoners with an IQ below 80 are excluded from many programmes designed to help offenders change their behaviour - and to demonstrate this so that they may become eligible for parole. Prisoners with learning disabilities spend more time in prison than need be because they cannot take part in interventions designed to help them reduce their offending risk. In 2010, the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State for Justice had failed in his duty to provide reasonable adjustments and adequate alternatives for an offender barred from the Thinking Skills Programme because his IQ fell below the required programme admission criteria. We hope our project will prevent this from happening again. The programme is currently being piloted, so watch this space for more information on this.

There are many examples of good practice happening around the country, including:

  • screening in police custody
  • inclusion of learning disability expertise in prison health, mental health in-reach and youth offending services
  • projects in prison to make reasonable adjustments.

The Journal of Learning Disabilities and Offending Behaviour carries peer reviewed articles on research and practice.