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"Learning to help the vulnerable" by Erwin James, The Guardian

10th July 2007

The terms "learning difficulties" and "learning disabilities" have always seemed to me to be rather vague and confusing. I thought I first came into contact with people experiencing both while in prison when, along with a number of other prisoners, I helped out with the groups of "handicapped" people who regularly visited the various prisons I was in to take part in activities in the prison gym or education department.

Such projects are run in prisons up and down the country and usually organised by PE staff or teachers and are an example of an inspired use of prison as a valuable community resource.

I was always amazed at how much the prisoner helpers and the visitors had in common. Both groups on the edges of society, not really accepted as part of the "mainstream," routinely stigmatised and marginalised.

The people I saw while involved in the various programmes were clearly needy and vulnerable. Many were autistic. Most had varying degrees of mental impairment. Some were physically disabled. Others had degenerating illnesses.

Assisting in the group activities was always a humbling, sobering experience. What I hadn't realised at the time was that, among the prisoner population, there was also a significant number of people who could have been described as having learning difficulties or disabilities.

A research project entitled No One Knows, undertaken by Jenny Talbot for the Prison Reform Trust (PRT), examines how many people caught up in the criminal justice system have learning difficulties such as dyslexia and autism or learning disabilities - which is defined in the Valuing People white paper as "a significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence) with; a reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning); which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development".

The findings are startling, but will come as no real surprise to anyone with first-hand experience of prison life. Prisons are the oddest of environments, full as they are of the vulnerable, the damaged and the dangerous among us. It doesn't help that there is still so much confusion in wider society about the purpose of prison and the context in which it is supposed to "work".

Nevertheless, most prison regimes include activities and facilities designed to provide personal development opportunities for prisoners in the hope that this will reduce the chances of prisoners re-offending once released. The problem is that, in order to take advantage of such opportunities, an individual needs to be extremely able in the first place just to survive the robust prison landing setting.

As well as highlighting the number of people in prison with definable difficulties, the No One Knows report includes the fact that 7% of prisoners have an IQ of less than 70 and 25% have an IQ of less than 80. This means that, among today's prison population of about 80,000, there are up to 25,000 with very low IQs who require specially focused additional support in order to access or benefit from any of the facilities on offer.

Yet the 2006 Adult Learning Inspectorate report, Greater Expectations, described the initial process of assessment for adult prisoners as "fundamentally flawed." Coupled with the fact that many of those suffering from a learning disability or difficulty have become adept at social camouflage, it means that the most needy among any prisoner population go undetected and unsupported - and are likely to be attract labels such as difficult, disruptive or anti-authority.

The PRT report quotes a head of healthcare in an unidentified prison who says, "We have nothing to be proud of in relation to people with learning disabilities. We are struggling to meet the needs of the ordinary population."

Urgent and immediate notice needs to be taken of the trust's research for this is a problem that is not going to go away.

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