In the United Kingdom, it’s estimated that half the people entering the prison system could have some form of neurodivergent condition, like autism, a brain injury or learning difficulties — all which impact their ability to engage with others and behave in a traditionally accepted way.
In America, watchdogs, advocates, and lawmakers alike have all reached a similar conclusion — prison is a challenging place for individuals with developmental disorders or communication differences, according to The Marshall Project and Spectrum News.
In the foreword to the new report, Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, and Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, detail that the United Kingdom’s justice system’s provisions are “patchy, inconsistent and uncoordinated,” while arguing that “too little is being done to understand and meet the needs of individuals.”
“We were struck by the number of times the word ‘difficult’ was used in evidence, most commonly in relation to perceptions of the behavior of neurodivergent people,’ the report says, as quoted by The Justice Gap. “It would perhaps be more useful to reflect on how ‘difficult’ the CJS is for people with neurodivergent needs, and what could be done to change this.”
Spectrum News details that autism itself is not associated with crime and having a neurodivergent condition doesn’t mean that someone will display criminal behavior. Rather, neurodivergence is linked to exacerbating factors such as unemployment and homelessness. Research also shows that these factors increase someone’s chance of being involved with the justice system, often repeatedly.
The result, Spectrum News outlines, is a large population of neurodivergent people who need services and aid, or become at “high risk” of abuse behind bars.
The U.K. researchers arrived at similar conclusions, realizing the full scope of the issue following the review and surveys, commissioned by the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, after the Equity and Human Rights Commission found that the system was “failing many disabled people.”
One of the respondents to the researchers said he worked for probation for almost two decades in the U.K. and couldn’t recall ever receiving training about working with neurodiversity individuals, The Justice Gap reports.
The report found that the effectiveness of custody risk assessment was varied, and that the main factor that determined an individual’s experience was the officer’s knowledge and experience with neurodivergent individuals.
The report also found that young people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds were “less likely to be identified with learning difficulties on reception to prison.” Estimates also suggested that neurodiverse conditions in the U.K. are three times more common in the criminal justice system than in the general population.
The chief inspectors make six recommendations, the main recommendation saying designing a “common screening tool for universal use within the criminal justice system” backed by an information-sharing protocol specifying how information should be appropriately shared between agencies to allow for adjustments and support.
“It will take time and commitment to make the changes that we suggest, but we believe that it is possible to transform the experiences and outcomes for those with neurodivergent needs,” the authors conclude.
In America, advocates would agree to make similar changes.
The Marshall Project and Spectrum News report, state officials have often failed to identify prisoners with developmental disorders, resulting in mistreatment and a lack of allocated resources.
Survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that in 2011 and 2012, 30 percent of women and 19 percent of men in U.S. state and federal prisons had a ‘cognitive disability,’ a category that includes autism, according to Spectrum News.
In addition, a 2012 study of 431 male prisoners in the U.S. found an autism prevalence of 4.4 percent, about double the prevalence in the general population. Many other prisoners on the spectrum may go undiagnosed.
As a result of no diagnosing and a lack of proper resources, individuals are more apt to get into fights or feel triggered by the aggressive environment.
“There’s a really basic issue of whether prison works for people with autism,” says Glynis Murphy, a clinical psychologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. “I’m not a great believer in prisons anyway, but I think they’re even less appropriate for people with autism.”
The full United Kingdom report can be accessed here.
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