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19 November 2008

Vulnerable people face abuse and discrimination throughout justice system

A failure of leadership and direction across the criminal justice system has resulted in vulnerable people facing ‘personal, systemic and routine’ discrimination from the point of arrest through to release from prison, according to a groundbreaking, three year review published by the Prison Reform Trust.

Prisoners’ Voices finds that, at worst, the absence of police safeguards increases the likelihood of vulnerable people experiencing miscarriages of justice, that once in court their lack of understanding grows as their lives are taken over by opaque court procedures and legalistic terminology and in prison many are left to fend for themselves in a shadowy world of not quite knowing what is going on around them or what is expected of them.

Prisoners’ Voices is the concluding report of the Prison Reform Trust’s No One Knows programme revealing the experiences of people with learning disabilities or difficulties in contact with the criminal justice system.  Previous reports, welcomed by ministers, have estimated that 20-30% of offenders have learning disabilities or difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system.

The report has been submitted to the independent Bradley review looking at the diversion of offenders with mental health problems and learning disabilities, which is expected to report to ministers in the New Year.

Although the report finds pockets of good practice it concludes that those providing leadership in the criminal justice system throughout the UK are failing in their legal duty to eliminate disability discrimination and promote equality.

The report finds that at the police station:

  • Less than a third of vulnerable people received support from an appropriate adult during police interviews.
  • Half of those with learning disabilities said they didn’t know what would happen to them once they had been charged.
  • Some allege maltreatment by the police or felt they had been manipulated into agreeing to a police interview without support.

One prisoner who felt he was being manipulated by the police said:

“They say to me, ‘if you want an interview we can do it now or you can wait five hours for a solicitor to come’. You don’t want to wait that long to be interviewed.”

They do the same with a caution, you have to plead guilty and then you can go, but you feel pressured to plead guilty.

One woman prisoner, denied her medication, said:

“When I was arrested I said I needed my medication and they left it for three days and then even when I went to court I didn’t have my medication and I was shaking and my solicitor was going mad.”

The report finds that in court:

  • Over a fifth interviewed didn’t understand what was going on; some didn’t know why they were in court or what they had done wrong.
  • Most said the use of simpler language in court would have helped them.

One young offender talking about his experience at court said:

“I couldn’t really hear. I couldn’t understand but I said ‘yes, whatever’ to anything because if I say, ‘I don’t know’ they look at me as if I’m thick. Sometimes they tell you two things at once.”

Another felt too rushed in court:

“I am not good at speaking and they don’t listen. I needed more time to explain myself.”

The report finds that in prison:

  • Over half said they had been scared in prison.
  • They were five times as likely as other prisoners to have been subjected to control and restraint techniques and three times more likely to have spent time in segregation.
  • They were generally uncertain about where they would go for particular help as they prepared to leave prison.

One prisoner talked about how he coped knowing that his learning disability in effect barred him from attending the offender behaviour courses that would help him earn early release (see note 6):

“It’s hard, hard dealing with the sentence let alone dealing with the stresses of not being able to do the course. The pressure of just being here and the pressure of having to do all the shit and knowing that you’ll have to be here longer because you can’t read is hard.”

Another prisoner told of the difficulties he had keeping in touch with his family:

“Nobody told my mum I was going to gaol, she thought I was dead. I asked how they were going to tell my mum, but it took three months for anyone to contact her. I finally found someone to help me write a letter.”

The report calls for an end to the criminal justice system’s collective and unlawful failure to meet the minimum requirements of disability legislation. Its main recommendations are:

  • Criminal justice agencies should comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (2005) and specifically the Disability Equality Duty.
  • Individual prisons and courts should be brought into line with other public authorities and be required to produce their own Disability Equality Schemes.
  • All criminal justice information, letters and forms should be in ‘easy read’; all interventions should be accessible to offenders with learning disabilities or difficulties, or alternatives of the same quality provided.
  • Health, social services, criminal justice and other relevant services should come together to establish local multi-agency ‘forums’, to develop local strategies for preventing offending and re-offending of people with learning disabilities or difficulties.
  • Vulnerable people should be identified at the point of arrest so they can be supported and, where appropriate, the option to divert away from the criminal justice system considered.

The recommendations call for system-wide reform, from diversion away from the criminal justice system through to staff training, from proper assessment in police stations, courts and prisons through to support and advocacy.

The foreword to the report is written by Baroness Joyce Quin, who in 1997 was the Labour government’s first prisons minister. Baroness Quin writes that while in that role she was very aware there were vulnerable people in prison, it is this report that has set out the scale of the problem:

“I have become more fully informed about the numbers of people affected and how often their needs are not properly met or understood, not just in prison but throughout the criminal justice system…I hope and trust that the publication of this report will mark the start of a thoroughgoing implementation of our recommendations across a range of government departments and the devolved UK administrations.”

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said

“This is a harrowing account of what it is like to travel through the criminal justice system in a fog of anxiety and well founded fear of bullying, not understanding or half understanding what is happening to you.”

This report raises important questions about how these vulnerable people got caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place and whether those responsible for special education, social care and family support could have done more to prevent this happening.


1. You can download the report here and find out more about No One Knows below.

2. Prisoners’ Voices is based on over 170 interviews with prisoners, in ten prisons in England and Wales and four prisons in Scotland. Its recommendations are based on empirical research with prisoners and prison staff, reviews of relevant literature and policy and extensive consultation with policymakers and practitioners. Earlier reports in the programme focussed on the Police, Prison officers, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

3. The No One Knows programme is supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. Mencap is a partner organisation of No One Knows.

4. The work of No One Knows is guided by an advisory group and a group of people with learning disabilities, called the Working for Justice Group.

5. The report will be launched at the House of Lords on 19 November 2008 at an event attended by the Prisons Minister, David Hanson MP.

6. In a report published in March 2008 the Joint Committee on Human Rights said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about this issue and warned that such discrimination was clearly unlawful: “The evidence which we have received on the treatment of people with learning disabilities in prison and their inability to secure equal access to parole, raises one of the most serious issues in our inquiry. We are deeply concerned that this evidence indicates that, because of a failure to provide for their needs, people with learning disabilities may serve longer custodial sentences than others convicted of comparable crimes. This clearly engages Article 5 ECHR (right to liberty) and Article 14 (enjoyment of ECHR rights without discrimination). It is also an area that falls within the Prison Service’s responsibilities under the Disability Equality Duty.” (Joint Committee on Human Rights, Seventh report, 6 March 2008)