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04 October 2010

Lost, bullied and trapped, people with a learning disability in Northern Irish prisons

Lack of training and inadequate resources for prison staff in dealing with prisoners affected by learning disabilities is leaving some of the most vulnerable prisoners in Northern Ireland prisons unidentified, bullied and effectively excluded from rehabilitation courses, according to new research published by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report, No One Knows, examines the views of prison officers in Northern Irish prisons, and will be launched this morning at a conference organised by the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust.

The report estimates that 105 prisoners in Northern Ireland have a learning disability or difficulty that interferes with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system and a further 300-375 will require some additional support. Together this accounts for about 30% of the 1,500 prison population in Northern Ireland.

Although the report acknowledges examples of good practice to address the needs of this sizeable group, it argues that far more can and must be done to respond to people with learning disabilities and difficulties caught up in the criminal justice system.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

Despite much effort by prison staff, work with this group of prisoners is at best generally ineffective; at worst it’s downright cruel to incarcerate people who may find it hard to understand what’s going on, who are more likely to be picked on or bullied by other prisoners and who may leave prison less able to cope and more likely to reoffend.

We are pleased that the government and the Northern Ireland Prison Service are committed to improving the situation and have already indicated their willingness to implement many of the recommendations made in our report. 

Main findings from the report include:

Two thirds of prison staff polled said that it was ‘unlikely’ that people with a learning disability coming into prison would have their condition flagged up.  The remainder said this may be likely for a minority of prisoners.

Almost all respondents believed that prisoners with learning difficulties or learning disabilities were more likely to be victimised by other prisoners.

Over half of respondents said they were aware of activities or opportunities from which prisoners with learning difficulties or learning disabilities could be excluded in their prison. Examples of these primarily related to participation in core offending behaviour programmes, which have minimum IQ requirements of 80 or above.  (An IQ of 70 is generally regarded as the cut-off in formal definitions of learning disability. People with IQs between 70-80 are generally described as having ‘borderline’ learning disabilities.)

One prison officer expressed frustration at the lack of information-sharing and inadequate identification of needs:

The scale of the problem is largely hidden … many get by without recognition of problems or assistance needed; staff come across information as opposed [to] anyone [telling] us.

In the foreword to the report, Robin Masefield, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, accepts there is growing concern about the number of people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system and how they are identified and whether their needs are met.  He adds:

This report brings out an increasingly consistent refrain in assessments of provision in the Prison Service, namely that the service cannot go it alone if it is to deliver what society requires. It is in the interests of wider society that other bodies, whether in the statutory or non-statutory sector, whether professional or lay, are enabled to make a direct contribution.


No One Knows is a UK-wide programme based at the Prison Reform Trust that aims to effect change by exploring and publicising the experiences of people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system.

It is supported by The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund until October 2008 and is chaired by the Rt Hon the Baroness Joyce Quin, former prisons minister for England and Wales.

The research is being released in a report called No One Knows: identifying and supporting prisoners with learning difficulties and learning disabilities: the views of prison staff in Northern Ireland on Wednesday 24 September, at a conference at the Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown.