Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Respond

The experience of our organisation

Respond is a national charity that works with People with learning disabilities who have experienced abuse or trauma, we have been established for over 20 years. Many of the individuals referred to us have become perpetrators of sexual abuse towards others and some of these people end up within the criminal justice system. What is evident from our own statistics is that it is mostly men who become perpetrators and who are therefore referred here for risk assessments or for psychotherapy in order to reduce behaviour which could lead to offending. The women who are referred are more likely to be at risk of harming themselves or of consistently putting themselves in sexually vulnerable situations. However, we do come across some women who commit sexually harmful behaviour although this is not common, we also have come across women with learning disabilities who could be at risk of offending by “loitering or soliciting for prostitution” and also sometimes the violence that is so often turned on themselves sometimes spills out and becomes aimed at others. We can speculate that we get less referrals for women at risk of offending because their behaviour is less recognised as such.

1. Women with learning disabilities in Prison

1.1 It is estimated that 2% of people in the general population have a learning disability (1998 Department of Health ). It would seem from the literature that the prevalence of learning disability amongst offenders is likely to be higher than the general population but there is no clear data on this. A literature review undertaken for the report “No One Knows” shows that “20–30% of prisoners have learning disabilities or difficulties that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system” (Talbot, J. 2008

1.2 There is limited information available regarding female offenders. Research carried out some years ago (Mottram and Lancaster 2006) reports that there are considerable differences that should be considered between female prisoners compared to both adult and young male prisoners. ). However the same research has shown that in one women’s prison there was “ a higher proportion of women assessed either as learning disabled or borderline learning disabled (with 40% of prisoners scoring within this range) than either of the other prisons (with 30% and 27% within this range)” (Loucks, N. 2006).

2. The specific issues for women with learning disabilities in prison

2.1 Our experience as a specialist service has led us to believe that, as the Motram and Lancaster research in 2006/07 suggests, many needs will have not been properly assessed or assessed incorrectly. For many clients coming into Respond their care and support has often focused on behavioural and risk management and, although these are important factors to consider they do not paint the whole picture.

2.2 It is our experience that people with learning disabilities face higher a prevalence of abuse and trauma from bullying in their neighbourhood to physical and sexual violence at home. Time and again research highlights that a person with a learning disability is significantly more likely to have experienced abuse and exploitation from an early age, which is likely to leave emotional scars.

2.3 In addition to this women in our society still face forms of abuse and exploitation that are specific to their gender and as with all issues of abuse and exploitation women with learning disabilities have an additional vulnerability.

2.4 It is the opinion of Respond that the general female prison population in Britain is in urgent need of change. As a psychotherapeutic organisation we believe that all behaviour is a form of communication and criminal activity is often an expression of profound emotional distress. Sadly the prison system is not yet designed to appropriately respond to the complex needs of people who have offended.

2.5 Although there exists within the prison system examples of excellent practices where women receive high levels of educational, social and emotional support this is not the case in all prison establishments. It is widely acknowledged that the experiences for many women in the prison is a story of a lost opportunity, a chance to make profound interventions that could help people with offending behaviour lead healthier and happier lives.

2.6 For women with learning disabilities this lost opportunity is even more marked. Prisons are not alone in their failure to properly meet the needs of women with learning disabilities the issue is societal wide. People with learning disabilities do have more of a voice now than in previous times and services are more appropriately designed to meet their needs but there is still more work to be done and the resourcing of these services needs to be secured and not, as is sadly happening, become the most vulnerable to cuts during challenging financial times.

2.7 For many women with learning disabilities in the prison system the experience is one of bewilderment, uncertainty and isolation. Without in-depth needs assessments many are left without the necessary inductions and explanations needed to enable them to understand what has and is going to happen. This can only increase levels of anxiety and distress.

2.8 Extra consideration needs to be taken when working with women with learning disabilities. It takes more time for this group of people to process their surroundings, to understand systems and new routines. Prisons, therefore need to assess their practices and hold in mind whether they are meeting the needs of those in their care or instead whether they are increasing levels of distress and harm. Examples of this include the impact of frequently moving someone from one prison to another.

2.9 As is the case in wider society women with learning disabilities are vulnerable to bullying in prison establishments. We believe that prisons are likely to be places where there will exist higher levels of abuse and exploitation and without the proper safeguards in place, which includes the identification of a person with a learning disability and a recognition that a comprehensive package of support and education is likely to be needed, then this cohort of extremely vulnerable women will not be appropriately cared for.

2.10 At Respond we have developed ways of working with people with learning disabilities that take into account their cognitive and emotional needs. We try, at all times, to hold the needs of our clients at the forefront of our thinking. This means that we try to consider how accessible we are from the outset and subsequently through our various pathways of care. We tailor our training and harm prevention programs, or website and loss and bereavement groups specifically to meet the needs of our client group. It is this approach that we are advocating for in our prison systems.

2.11 The experiences of women with learning disabilities in the prison system are in many ways no different from the non-learning disabled prisoner and the services that are needed are therefore the same. However, what is needed is resources that have been adapted to meet the needs of the learning disabled. So educational resources need to fully consider specific learning disabilities, leaflets need to be designed with impairments in mind. Staff need to be trained to better understand the needs of women with learning disabilities and how to work more effectively with these needs in mind. The pathway of a prisoner needs to be fully considered, with decisions about placement factored in to the thinking.

2.12 Therapeutic support in prisons needs also to be designed and delivered to enable women with learning disabilities to properly access it. Historically, it was felt that therapy could not be delivered to people with learning disabilities because they often lacked the cognitive and linguistic capacity to speak with the therapist. Instead the therapeutic support needs to be delivered, like all learning disability provision, in a manner that is accessible and appropriate to the needs of the client.

September 2012


Department of Health (1998) Valuing People White paper

Loucks, N. 2006 The Prevalence and associated needs of offenders with learning disabilities and learning difficulties. The prison Reform Trust

Talbot, J. Prisoner’s Voices; Experiences of the criminal Justice System by Prisoners with learning disabilities and difficulties. Prison Reform Trust

Prepared 12th July 2013