Mary O’Hara: the often overlooked population within our prisons

Nearly one in three prisoners has a learning disability and jail is particularly tough for them. Despite a high staff turnover and tight finances, a shift is occurring in recognising their needs

Silhouette of man in prison cell

The UK’s prison estate, while under enormous strain like other state institutions, is too often ignored – as is the fact that an estimated one-third of those in them have a learning disability.

No comprehensive statistics are available but Ministry of Justice figures in the year to March 2023 showed that nearly three in 10 prisoners (28%) were identified as having a learning disability or difficulty (such as dyslexia).

Figures are similar in the US, where around a quarter to a third of prisoners are estimated to have a learning disability.

Societal barriers are amplified across the criminal justice system. But, as charities and campaigners have repeatedly pointed out, the crisis within the prison estate presents singular challenges for a population requiring specific adjustments or interventions.

System in survival mode

The latest Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile from the Prison Reform Trust describes a justice system “trapped in survival mode”, much of this a result of austerity funding cuts.

Its latest annual briefing shows the number of people held in Scottish, English and Welsh prisons standing at almost 88,000 – 75% higher than 30 years ago and predicted to rise further.

Britain has the highest rate of incarceration in western Europe, as even the New York Times has noted. It is already at capacity, with conditions for prisoners and staff alike often unsafe.

Research shows that, for prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties, prisons are especially unsafe. These inmates are five times more likely to be subject to control and restraint than other prisoners and three times as likely to report having spent time in segregation.

Against this backdrop, any deterioration in the prison system or depletion of resources is likely to disproportionately affect those requiring additional support.

Numerous reports from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and others have catalogued pressures such as serious overcrowding, grim living conditions and high levels of violence and self-harm as well as concerns over time spent in isolation.

In 2023, chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor issued five urgent notifications, which directly alert the lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice of significant concerns – the highest number in a single year.

Recruitment and retention problems appear intractable. High turnover and fewer experienced staff combine to exacerbate existing issues; there aren’t enough longstanding prison employees with the institutional knowledge and experience to guarantee the population is managed safely.

These inmates are five times more likely to be restrained than other prisoners and three times as likely to spend time in segregation

Despite some government efforts on recruitment, the reality, as the Prison Reform Trust concludes, is that “staff leave the service in droves. Quickly burnt out by the conditions they face each day.”

Those who remain report not having received training to better manage learning disabled inmates’ needs and requirements.

Time, support and staffing

Jon Collins, chief executive of the Prisoners’ Educational Trust, told me that the staff ratios are crucial because personalisation “takes time and support”.

He adds that while there are admirable efforts in prisons and in external organisations to improve the system (for example literacy projects), staff churn means opportunities to foster long-term initiatives can be missed.

Nonetheless, there has been a shift in both approach and policy action in the UK the justice system. For example, liaison and diversion services (while imperfect) identify people with vulnerabilities as soon as possible after they come into the criminal justice system, and refer them to specialist services.

Collins points to examples where a degree of progress has been made. Neurodiversity support managers have been introduced in prisons and, from 2025, there will be a new screening tool to better identify people with particular needs.

There is no denying the scale of the problems but, as Collins says, the fact that some headway has been made “shows it can be done”.