RCN adviser: people with learning disability should not go to prison

Royal College of Nursing adviser on why it is more dangerous and costly to lock people with learning disabilities in prison

Ann Norman

Ann Norman

Some 7 per cent of the prisoner population is made of people with learning disabilities. It is three times more than the number of such people in the wider community. Many of these people are inclined to re-offend. Ann Norman,nurse advisor with the Royal College of Nursing learning disability and criminal justice, believes that the police should work in collaboration with nurses to prevent people with learning disability not only from going to prison but from committing a crime.

“I’m not sitting here saying everybody with learning disability should never go to prison,” Norman says. “For some people it is appropriate and for others it’s not.”

Norman says if nurses cooperate with the police, people with learning disability can be diverted into community learning disability services earlier than they commit a crime. But despite the fact that some positive results have already been achieved across the UK, the police and the government are still sceptical, with nursing staff reduced.

What is learning disability?

The Department of Health defines learning disability as a “lifelong condition, not illness nor a disease in itself. ” It affects the way a person understands information and how they communicate.  Norman says it is still very difficult to identify people with learning disabilities and once they get into prison, officers may not be aware of their condition at all.

“There’s not enough comprehensive assessment,” Norman said. “People with clear and obvious learning disabilities are falling into one group, but those with mild, not very noticeable, disability are usually not even identified. So it’s very difficult to quantify the exact number of such people.”

Majority of people with learning disability have offending tendencies, such as committing arson or behave violently, she added. When a person presented to the court, the only assessment they go through is a questionnaire. They are usually asked:

  •  Have you been to a special needs school?
  •  Have you ever had an educational statement?
  •  Do you see a community disability nurse?

Norman believes these questions are not enough to identify whether a person has a learning disability or not and whether they have special needs or treatment.

Not enough nurses

Due to the vagueness of the term ‘learning disability’ and ignorance of judges and the police towards the problem, Norman believes nurses should be fully introduced into the justice system. But instead of that, there are cuts to nursing stuff.

“In learning disability nursing it’s an absolute fact that we have such a diminishing number of nurses and we’ve got downgrading trajectory of nurses with the special skill and an increasing trend of people with learning disabilities,” she said.

In London prisons there are usually learning disability nurses, unlike in prisons across the country where the staff will not know that a prisoner has a learning disability. Norman was a prison nurse herself and worked as a clinician in Winchester Prison for 12 years.

What’s next?

Norman says spending more money on preventive measures will eventually be more cost-effective that sending people with learning disability to prison. The Treasury won’t give money without hard facts however, she says.

“But we’re almost there, I think. It’s going to happen because it saves government money and – most importantly – a person.”

She says she is still trying to get used to the changes in the government and the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove but she is willing to build relationships with the authorities whoever is in the government.

“We have a bias of course  – nursing. If you provide good nursing, we can demonstrate there’s a good outcome. And hopefully it’s so compelling that the government would want to listen [to us].”

As a former nurse she believes the policy of locking people with learning disabilities in prison is wrong and says once a person is in prison they must have the same medical support as people in outside prison.

“My duty to provide help and support and if you can’t do it as a nurse, go work somewhere else,” she said.

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