We believe prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties should have equal access to support

“I stop and think … [I] think of the consequences to my son”

This quote is one of many that illustrate the impact of a pilot programme to help prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties learn new skills.

We have posted before about our concern that most programmes designed to help offenders understand and change their behaviour exclude prisoners who have IQ scores lower than 80. Yet there is good evidence that:

  • 7% of adult prisoners have an IQ below 70
  • a further 25% have an IQ in the range 70-79.

Government policy puts a lot of emphasis on rehabilitation of prisoners and reducing the numbers who re-offend after leaving prison. We believe that those with IQs below the current threshold should have equal chances of receiving such support. (Access to programmes depends on other factors too, such as the assessed risk of re-offending).

Following a successful legal challenge for discrimination by an offender with learning disabilities, we were lucky enough to get a grant from the Department of Health to test the feasibility of adapting delivery of the Thinking Skills Programme (TSP). We worked closely with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which owns the intellectual property rights to TSP.

Working together brought considerable benefits in the range of expertise we could draw on; it also posed challenges in understanding each other’s perspectives and the cultures of different organisations. It was really helpful to have advice from members of our advisory group as we went along. We also tested ideas with groups of people with learning disabilities and employed actors with learning disabilities to record some audio stories.

We were delighted that prison staff were enthusiastic and were able to identify 24 prisoners to take part in the pilots. We had thought hard about how to make the style of delivery suitable for prisoners with learning disabilities or difficulties (for example, breaking down complex ideas such as cause and effect into simpler steps, lots of repetition of the key concepts and chances to practise skills in the group). In our evaluation we asked the programme facilitators and the prisoners about their experiences of taking part, as well as looking at some ‘before and after’ psychometric tests.

The prisoners who took part picked out some of the exercises as particularly helpful and they suggested a few improvements. They found most of the programme engaging and thought it dealt with things that were important to them. A key finding was that the process of taking part in a group had helped increase participants’ confidence. This was as significant for people as the learning of skills, as it meant they had the confidence to practise and implement their learning. Asked about learning, one said:

“How to use all the skills, and putting the skills into practice.”

Participants were able to give examples of how they were trying to change their behaviour in prison, and prison staff were able to corroborate some of these. For example:

“A fight was developing in the gym and instead of getting stuck in I helped people calm down.”

One man said:“Have begun to set myself up for when released and thinking what needs to be done.”

Facilitators made many helpful comments: they particularly liked the simplified language and the way we had designed exercises to avoid reading and writing. We learned from their observations about what worked and what needed to be adjusted for the final drafts.

NOMS programmes have to be accredited by a panel; we were invited to their meeting in November 2013 to discuss the adaptations we recommended. We were very pleased to hear that they recognised the importance of a programme that would be responsive to the needs of offenders with intellectual disabilities, had confidence in the work done so far and supported further development work. This will be carried out by NOMS before the programme goes back to the panel.

Download the full project report and evaluation report.

The project team comprised Forensic Psychologist in Training Nzinga Akinshegun, Prof Glynis Murphy (Tizard Centre, University of Kent), Dr Peter Oakes (Department of Psychological Health and Wellbeing, University of Hull) and me (Alison Giraud-Saunders).

About the Author: Alison Giraud-Saunders

Alison is a consultant for the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, following her appointment as Co-Director in November 2003, where she lead the Foundation’s team alongside Co-Director Barbara McIntosh, developing proposals for new projects, and managing and delivering projects and consultancy contracts.

About this blog

This is the blog of the Mental Health Foundation and the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities. On this blog, experts as well as individuals and carers from across the fields of mental and learning disability write about their experiences, both personal and professional.

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