Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Prisoners with learning disabilities at greater risk of harm due to institutional indifference

Prisoners with learning disabilities face “daily and routinely” hidden harms due to inaccessible prison structures that are ignorant of impairment, finds a new research paper.

The paper, The Hidden Harms of Prison Life for People with Learning Disabilities, was published in The British Journal of Criminology and found that there was institutional indifference towards people with learning disabilities.

It looked at the lived experience of imprisonment in Scotland from the perspective of people with learning disabilities, highlighting the unique yet hidden challenges that they face within prisons. The findings are based on a research project involving over 70 qualitative interviews with 25 men and women with learning disabilities at all stages of criminal justice from arrest to post-imprisonment.

The research was carried out within Scottish prisons between 2013–2014 and involved discussing participants’ experiences of imprisonment and their understandings of wider criminal justice processes.

It found that participants discussed the harmful aspects of prison life through the narrative of ‘pains’, though much of these painful encounters were found in structures and cultures which, in turn, produced disabling barriers that made participants question their worth.

Harms include being unable to escape targeted violence

Prisoners with learning disabilities were forced into circumstances that others were not, that placed them at further risk of harm such as staying in prison for longer than their tariff, of being forced into risky relationships, of being overlooked or being unable to escape targeted violence.

The research found that the hidden harms, over and above the established pains of imprisonment, led to disability inequalities and immeasurable injustice.

At times, participants deployed their own tactics or ‘secondary adjustments’ to make life in prison survivable, i.e. bartering canteen items for support with filling out forms.

Caitlin Gormley, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow and author of the research, said: “It is impossible to deny the experience, and impact, of being routinely harassed, victimized, verbally degraded, and physically attacked on the basis of identity. Yet, it was clear, as a result of disability discrimination, that the locus of the problem often falls at the feet of the person with learning disabilities while institutions fail to address the structural and socio-cultural barriers that exclude this group through reasonable adjustments.

“It is their responsibility to ensure that the prison know about their impairment and its effects; they are also expected to adjust to an ‘institutionally thoughtless’ regime, which has not been designed nor adapted to meet their needs; and, all the while, they are targeted and victimized for being different.

“While it might be argued that many of these harmful aspects of prison life are similarly experienced by non-disabled people, the overlapping of those experiences is unique to this group. The systemic negligence of people with learning disabilities, in this context, and the moral indifference they encounter at every stage of life  reveal the socially mediated harms embedded within disabling prison structures and institutional interactions.”

This paper demonstrates that very little had changed in Scottish prisons for people with learning disabilities since The Prison Reform Trust’s No One Knows investigation in 2007–8, though the findings depart slightly in focus from the individual to the structural through the notion of hidden harms and by bringing together criminological and disability studies literature.

Dr Gormley concluded that prison is disproportionately difficult to navigate for people with learning disabilities due to inherent structural, procedural, and communicative barriers that exclude, disadvantage, and oppress this group. Inaccessibility can force people with learning disabilities into, otherwise avoidable, risky social interactions and relationships. As a result of the failure to acknowledge an already marginalized group, more is being asked of people with learning disabilities while in prison.


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