People with learning disabilities in prison

(Graphic by Ian Dodds)

People with learning disabilities can be more easily manipulated – by criminals and police. Corin Wiliams reports

Mohamad Abdulaziz Rashid Saeed-Alim, walked into an Exeter restaurant on 22 May 2008 wearing a rucksack packed with six glass bottles filled with kerosene, caustic soda and nails. His plan was to assemble several crude but effective bombs and blow himself up, taking as many unsuspecting diners as he could with him.

As he was priming the devices in a toilet cubicle, one bomb went off, causing him severe facial injuries and saving the lives of dozens of innocent people.

At the trial the judge said the attack had been “an unsophisticated attempt” and sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

A straightforward terrorist case? Not quite. Saeed-Alim only came into being just two years ago when Nicky Reilly, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome and learning disabilities, decided to change his name. It transpired in court that he had been converted to Islam by extremists he had met in an internet café and had then been persuaded to attempt mass murder. It was a shock to many who knew him and friends who called him the “Big Friendly Giant”.

Unsettling issues

As a vulnerable person – which was how he was treated in police interviews – was Reilly himself a victim, and was his sentence appropriate for someone who might need specialist services? The case has lifted the lid on many unsettling issues that have only recently been brought into the light by the Prison Reform Trust. A series of reports, published as part of its No-one Knows programme, found that 7% of the prison population had an IQ of less than 70 – a level that would qualify them for social services aid. Up to 30% of prisoners were found to have some form of learning disability or difficulty that impaired their ability to cope with the criminal justice system.

One of the most disturbing discoveries uncovered by research cited by the PRT is that, unlike Reilly, less than a third of prisoners with learning disabilities or verbal comprehension difficulties receive support from a designated appropriate adult during police interviews, in contravention of national guidelines. Half of those interviewed said they did not know what would happen once they had been charged, and some even reported waiving their right to support after being beaten or mistreated by police. The court system also fared badly under scrutiny, with a high proportion of people with learning disabilities saying they did not fully understand what was going on and had had no access to clear information.

Miscarriage of justice

David Congdon, head of policy and campaigns at Mencap, is one of many in the sector who have been shocked by the figures and warns that many are at risk of a miscarriage of justice. “People with a learning disability will often answer ‘yes’ to a question to try to be helpful and can incriminate themselves wrongly,” he says. “They can end up being convicted because they’ve not been able to defend themselves. It’s important that safeguards are in place to make sure they are dealt with fairly by the system at every stage of the process.”

Congdon has no doubts that Reilly should be dealt with by the courts, however. “We believe in equal rights, and this also means equal responsibilities. If you had someone with a severe learning disability, say an IQ under 50, I would guess in 99.9% of cases they would not go through the criminal justice system, they would be diverted. If you’re not in that category – and Reilly isn’t – and you know what you’re doing is wrong then you should go through the system.”

PRT evidence

The trouble is that evidence gathered by the PRT points to a system that just doesn’t know how to handle people with learning disabilities. Glynis Murphy, joint chair of clinical psychology and learning disability at the University of Kent’s Tizard Centre, was on the No-one Knows steering group and shares some of Congdon’s concerns. “There’s a string of false confessions and unsafe cases where people with learning disabilities have been incorrectly convicted.”

“That’s reflected in the fact that there are different responses to the same kind of behaviour by police forces in different parts of the country,” says Murphy. “Some are clear that they want to prosecute people with learning disabilities, others seem not to want to. Even when they do prosecute, they’re often not clear about the purpose or what ought to be the outcome.”

Murphy also brings into question how effective rehabilitation – supposedly one of the main aims of imprisonment – is for people with learning disabilities. “In the normal course of events when you go into prison you’d be offered all kinds of treatment programmes – such as the enhanced thinking programme, the anger management programme or sex offender treatment,” she says. “You’d also be offered opportunities to learn new skills in education and employment. But if you have a learning disability, you are often excluded from these.”

Prison visits

Murphy visited prisons around the country as part of the PRT programme to find out how people with learning disabilities were coping. “Most reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than other prisoners and they were being bullied more,” she says. “They were also much less aware of prison rules – often because they were written down and they couldn’t read. You’d have to say that prisons are just not set up for people who don’t have reading or writing skills and who can’t communicate very well.”

The PRT has helped to open the eyes of everyone in the prison sector. Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers has welcomed the impact it has had. “The PRT reports have assisted us in focusing on this in inspections and has brought it to the forefront,” she says.

“There was one instance given by a prison disability liaison officer which I think describes the situation well. She was trying to support a prisoner with learning disabilities in a young offender institution and asked him how he understood the prison rules. The reply was: ‘If I get sent to the block (a separation unit) then I know I’ve done something wrong so I don’t do it again.’ You might call this an ‘electric fence’ method – if you do something and it hurts, you learn a harsh lesson.”

Owers has found some examples of good practice, but these usually depend on committed individuals – often disability liaison officers – having to find out things for themselves. Nevertheless, she continues: “I think there is a much greater appreciation of the issue and things are getting better.”

Once prisoners with learning disabilities have been released they are often again let down. David Spurgeon, policy development manager at Nacro, has found that resettlement services are far from satisfactory. “Even if assessments for people with learning disabilities were improved, services just aren’t set up correctly,” he says. “The reality for all offender programmes is that access is patchy across the UK.”

Overstretched staff

Owers and Spurgeon believe that many of the problems stem from a high prison population and overstretched staff dealing with too many people at once. The solution could hinge on the impending publication of the Bradley Review – an independent review by Lord Bradley into the diversion of people with mental health problems away from prison and the criminal justice system – commissioned by the Department of Health last year.

There is no doubt about Reilly’s guilt, but whether he and many others like him will be given the same opportunities offered to other prisoners is very much in question. Spurgeon remains cautiously optimistic, however. “There’s been a great move on offender health in the Department of Health, and we’re hoping that Bradley will flag up the need for early identification and community alternatives to prison,” he says. “But the reality is that resources will be limited. We need to see how that pans out in practice.”

• The No-one Knows reports are available at

No-one knows key points

• 7% of prisoners have an IQ below 70.

• 20-30% have a learning disability or difficulty that interferes with their ability to comprehend the criminal justice system.

• Less than a third of prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties received support from an appropriate adult during police interviews.

• More than a fifth of prisoners said they did not understand what was going on in court, with some saying they did not know what they had done wrong.

• More than half of prison staff believe that prisoners with learning disabilities are more likely to be victims of bullying.

More information

Learning disabilities: expert guide

This article appeared in the 5 March issue under the title Scant Regard

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