A new report has exposed how often neurodivergent people in the criminal justice system fail to receive the reasonable adjustments they need.
The report by User Voice, a charity led by ex-offenders, describes the “unedited” experiences of neurodivergent people in prisons, the probation service, the courts and the police system.
For the study (PDF)*, commissioned by NHS England, User Voice interviewed 104 service-users – all of them diagnosed or self-diagnosed as neurodivergent – across 11 prisons in England, as well as surveying 250 neurodivergent service-users.
Those who took part in the study included prisoners who were autistic, had ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia or acquired brain injuries.
Only 15 of the 104 service-users said they been offered adjustments around their neurodiversity while in prison.
These adjustments included being given single cells, being let out for a walk when they felt overwhelmed or frustrated, having access to the gym to burn energy, being provided with noise-cancelling headphones, or being given plates that allowed different foods to be kept separate.
Many interviewees spoke of the lack of access to health care and mental health services, and those with ADHD particularly felt the whole criminal justice system was dismissive about their condition “and treated them accordingly”.
Interviewees said adjustments and support were not delivered systematically by all staff, and some staff deliberately ignored adjustments.
One said: “I cut my stomach. And they literally… they just called me pathetic.”
Some of those who were interviewed shared experiences of “provocation and abuse” from prison staff, and officers not always believing them when they disclosed their neurodiversity.
One 63-year-old, who was autistic and had ADHD, said: “Out of all the staff I’ve known in all the prisons I’ve been in, so thousands of staff… there’s only, I would say, five members of staff in all these years that I actually got a lot of time for.
“They actually went out of their way to try and help, and then they’re ridiculed by staff for helping me… ‘Are you going to help the spastic today Mel?’”
Three interviewees spoke positively about a “neurodiverse wing” at Pentonville prison in north London, where it is less crowded, there is more freedom, and staff have a better understanding of neurodivergent prisoners.
But interviewees said there were not enough staff in prisons who were qualified to understand neurodiversity, or enough opportunities to be assessed or screened for neurodiversity.
One said: “I need help. I need specialist help. I should not just be slammed in here all the time.
“If someone was to speak to me and give me some medication to chill me out I’d be fucking right.”
Another interviewee, who is autistic, with ADHD and other conditions, said he had been “coming to prison from the young age until now” and “every time they send me to prison I always come out worse”.
Most of those interviewed spoke of the “ignorance, lack of information and misinformation” they encountered, and said that those working in the criminal justice system needed to learn more about neurodiversity and the needs of neurodivergent people.
One autistic man described how one officer who had an autistic sister “knew how to deal with me” after he mentioned that he was autistic and that he was then “a lot better and I’ve got on with him ever since”.
Most of those questioned said courts had made no adjustments for them.
Some said they had wrongly pleaded guilty in court without understanding what it meant because their solicitor had asked them to.
A service-user with learning difficulties had been asked by his solicitor not to speak at a court hearing because of his stammer, while a dyslexic interviewee was told by his solicitor that he did not need to read all the court papers because he was taking longer than usual to read them.
“This resulted in incorrect information being put across to the judge which affected his sentence,” the report says.
Many of those interviewed described how they had been over-medicated throughout their lives, with no other support offered, while many said they were “easily manipulated, coerced, groomed, or susceptible to peer pressure”, which had led them into trouble and contact with the criminal justice system.
More than half of those questioned for the study had experienced abuse in their early life (47 per cent of the men and 76 per cent of the women), and one third had spent time in care before entering the criminal justice system.
More than seven in 10 of the men (71 per cent) and nearly half of the women (47 per cent) said they had been labelled “bad”, “naughty” or “thick” at school.
A third of the women had an acquired brain injury, mostly caused by domestic abuse.
Many of those interviewed said they had lived their entire lives “in crisis” due to neglect, isolation and a lack of understanding or support from their families and education, healthcare, and social care institutions.
Many of the men had turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, and eventually committed crimes such as theft, robbery and assault, while many of the women had been victims of domestic abuse, lost their children to social services, or suffered bereavement, which had led to drug use and crime.
Among the report’s recommendations is for more adjustments to be made for neurodivergent prisoners, such as providing single cells, one-to-one learning, more physical activities, peer support, as well as more thorough and consistent assessments and screening for neurodiversity.
Simon Boddis, chief executive of User Voice, said: “It is hard to look at our report and not to conclude that we as a society are locking up people who are in desperate need of help.”
He added: “Whilst the numbers of neurodiverse individuals in the community stands at one in 20, in prison and on probation it is closer to half.
“This report tells the unedited experience of neurodiverse people in the criminal justice system.
“It is often uncomfortable reading, as people tell us about their lives before prison, which often featured addiction or neglect.
“Once in the system, police and prison staff rarely have the knowledge to help and we see people being punished repeatedly.
“We hope that through this report, the criminal justice system will sit up and listen and make reasonable amendments for a significant proportion of the prison population.”
*‘Not Naughty, Stupid, or Bad’: The Voices of Neurodiverse Service Users in the Criminal Justice System
Picture: Norwich prison, one of the institutions covered by the study. Picture by Google
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