‘She used big words and just expected me to understand them’

I was recently invited by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, to give a presentation to the 47 member states on ‘Access to Justice’. It was an enlightening experience in many ways not least because in preparing for the presentation it struck me how little seems to have changed for prisoners with learning disabilities in the UK since Jenny Talbot’s brilliant report in 2008, No One Knows – Prisoners Voices.

At the end of the panel presentations and questions to the panel at the Council of Europe, the panel were asked to present one way forward that we felt would make the biggest difference for prisoners with learning disabilities.

I come from an organisation rooted in inclusion, equality, rights and access. 69% of people in prison said they had difficulty reading prison information, while 20-30% of offenders in the UK have a learning disability that interferes with their ability to cope within the Criminal Justice System. It seemed to me that without a system change to embed easy read into the justice system, across the UK and Europe,  prisoners with learning disabilities will continue to be disempowered, excluded and disadvantaged.

Here are some quotes from prisoners with learning disabilities themselves from the No One Knows Report.

‘She must have thought I was really bright, she used big words and just expected me to understand them’.

‘I don’t understand really. I pleaded guilty straight away. I didn’t know what he meant when he said custodial.’

‘They got me to sign something the other day. I didn’t know what it was, I just signed it.’

‘That’s my sort of hell, filling in forms. It sends my temper through the roof. If I can’t fill it in it does my head in’.

‘I haven’t been feeling well for the past couple of days but I haven’t done anything about it because it means filling in another form’.

A while ago, Frances and I, were invited to co deliver training to diversity and equality leads across the prison service in London. Frances was a member of staff with a learning disability working at CHANGE. As part of our preparation to deliver this training we were invited to visit a large male prison. We were taken through the process that every new prisoner goes through when they arrive in the prison. It felt very frightening and isolating and difficult to understand, even though we were not actual prisoners. However, two things struck us;  the first was that in one of the rooms new prisoners wait in, there was a very small written sign high up on a wall, near the ceiling that said:

‘Let us know if you have a learning disability’

The other thing that struck my colleague and myself was that at the end of the training Frances said that she herself was autistic and has a learning disability. The room fell into shocked silence. One by one the participants in the room said that they really had no idea that Frances was Disabled.

I was really curious about this because if you are someone who knows and works alongside people with learning disabilities and autistic people, I think that it wouldn’t  be long before you would realise that Frances is herself a Disabled woman.

Creating easy read letters, menus, forms, activity information and sentence plans is fundamentally what is needed within the prison service and would be very easy to create although it seems very problematic to put in place. The system itself is a barrier for people with learning disabilities and autistic people to access the information they need in the right format.

There also needs to be work alongside providing accessible information to support people with learning disabilities to usefully make use of the information in order to build their confidence and to support people to make informed decisions about their lives. Prison staff need to know who has a learning disability. They should have a good knowledge of the Disability Discrimination Act and an understanding of human rights abuses. There needs to be a needs led approach and collaborative multi agency working to prevent offending and reoffending.

In our experience easy read information would not only support prisoners with learning disabilities, if the easy read is inclusive it will support prisoners whose first language isn’t English and prisoners who struggle with literacy.

‘ A fifth of prisoners with learning disabilities didn’t understand what was going on in court. Most prisoners said that simpler language would help.’ No One Knows – Prisoners Voices.

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