Offenders with learning disabilities not getting help they need in prison, say inspectors

Prison and probation staff were failing to identify people with learning disabilities, meaning opportunities to help those offenders were missed, according to independent inspectors. Today they published the second report of a joint inspection into people with learning disabilities within the criminal justice system.

The report, A joint inspection of the treatment of offenders with learning disabilities within the criminal justice system: phase two in custody and the community, reflects the findings of HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons. The first inspection, published in January 2014, looked at what happened when someone is arrested and in police custody through to when someone first appears in court and is sentenced. Inspectors noted the poor quality of services, inefficient processes and confusion among police, court service and probation staff about what constituted a learning disability. This second inspection presents an equally bleak picture about the experience of offenders with learning disabilities in prison and while subject to supervision in the community.

The first inspection found that no clear definition or agreement exists across criminal justice and health organisations about what constitutes learning difficulties or disabilities. Although believed to be a sizeable minority, possibly as high as 30%, there is no way of knowing the number of people with such conditions within the criminal justice system. Adequate provision is, consequently, not always made by the agencies involved to cater for their specific needs. The second inspection found that within probation and particularly in prisons, identification of offenders with learning disabilities remained a problem and as a result, the needs of people with learning disabilities were often missed.

Inspectors were concerned to find:

  • screening tools were not used routinely by probation officers or in prisons, and there was an over-reliance on disclosure of the existence of learning disabilities by the offender/prisoner or their family;
  • information about prisoners’ learning disabilities was rarely appropriately shared with relevant staff;
  • practitioners were frustrated by the lack of support from social and health care agencies;
  • some prisoners had learning disability nurses but, generally, offender supervisors did not consult them regularly;
  • although some initiatives and guidance were being developed by national and local leaders, frontline staff and some managers were either unaware or unable to implement it; and
  • the Equality Act 2010 makes it clear that public authorities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of service users with a disability (including a learning disability), but in most cases managers and staff in prisons or probation services were not doing this.

However, inspectors also found that:

  • there were pockets of good practice and examples of staff developing supportive relationships and ‘going the extra mile’ but these were the exception, rather than the norm; and
  • offender managers and supervisors working in the community were keen to receive advice and guidance and those with direct access to community psychiatric nurses felt supported, however, most community psychiatric nurses were not trained or experienced in working with people with learning disabilities.

The chief inspectors made recommendations for improvement, which included: ensuring that prison and probation services comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 by making necessary adjustments to services delivered to those with learning disabilities, introducing a screening tool across the prison estate for learning disabilities and adapting interventions for people with learning disabilities to help reduce the risk of reoffending.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick said on behalf of both inspectorates:

“In prisons we were alarmed that there were extremely poor systems for identifying prisoners with learning disabilities; in one prison we were even told that they could not identify a single prisoner who had a learning disability. This lack of identification is unacceptable. Even where a learning disability was identified, it was not always sufficiently taken into account in prison processes such as behaviour management or anti-bullying measures. Not surprisingly therefore, some prisoners with a learning disability told us about getting into trouble with staff or being bullied because of their learning disability. We are also concerned that little thought was given to the need to adapt the regimes to meet the needs of prisoners with learning disabilities who may find understanding and following prison routines very difficult. In the community, the position was slightly better, however, there was still scope for significant improvement.”


For further information, please contact Jane Parsons, HM Inspectorate of Probation press office on 020 3681 2775 or 07880 787452.

Notes to Editors:

  1. A copy of the full report can be found on the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection website from 26 March 2015 at:
  2. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation is an independent inspectorate, sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and reporting directly to the Secretary of State on the effectiveness of work with individual adults, children and young people who offend, aimed at reducing reoffending and protecting the public.
  3. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  4. The inspections were commissioned following a number of reports, including the Bradley Commission report, Review of people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system (April 2009), here (PDF, 3 MB).

The term ‘learning disability’ was used to cover those people who have an IQ measured below 70 and those between 70 and 80 who are normally assessed as unsuitable to attend community and prison-based accredited programmes. This group of people is sometimes referred to as having an intellectual and developmental disability. We have also used the term ‘learning disability’ to include people with an autism spectrum disorder. We have not included people with a sole assessment of dyslexia.