What happens to autistic people in prison? We spoke with Clare Hughes, the Criminal Justice Coordinator for the United Kingdom’s National Autistic Society, about the unique experiences of and considerations for incarcerated autistic people. Clare has been leading on the NAS’s work expanding its accreditation programme to police forces, prisons, and probation services. Note that while some discussed issues are UK-specific, many can be generalized.

Photo © Dave Nakayama/Creative Commons license

[image: Prison cell bars, with the background cell itself slightly out of focus.]

Clare Hughes: We don’t know how many autistic people there are in prison in the UK: information about people diagnosed with autism isn’t collected routinely for the general population, let alone for prisoners, and many will be undiagnosed.

HM Young Offender Institution (YOI) and Prison at Feltham diagnose young people in the prison, if they are there long enough. In February 2016, they identified that 4.5% of their population had a diagnosis of autism, which they’d received either before or at the prison. It also requires main grade prison staff to refer prisoners they suspect are autistic.

From discussions I have had with prison governors, they don’t think that numbers of autistic prisoners are large, but the impact on the prison can be significant as they struggle to identify the best ways to support them. Some prisons are aware that autistic prisoners are spending—and often choosing to spend—extended periods in Care and Separation Units (segregation), as they are quieter environments, without contact with other prisoners.

The National Autistic Society is currently actively working with eight prisons, who have registered with Autism Accreditation. Autism Accreditation is a quality assurance programme that has been in existence for almost 25 years.

HM YOI Feltham in West London was the first prison to achieve Autism Accreditation in 2016, after we’d worked with them to develop the specialist Autism Accreditation Standards for prisons. We have since had over 30 prisons interested in Accreditation, following a letter recommending Autism Accreditation sent to all prisons in England and Wales by the then Minister for Prison, Probation and Rehabilitation, Andrew Selous MP. The Minister also asked us to look at developing accreditation standards for probation services which have done and these are currently being piloted. Following this work, we had police forces interested in the programme.

Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism: Is there a sizable autistic population in UK prisons?

Autistic people can end up in the prison system, just like anyone else. Although the exact number of autistic people in prison isn’t known, in HMYOI Feltham in February last year, they represented 4.5% of the population. (Note this is an ever-changing figure, as people are released and others arrive.)

What is clear is that research has found that autistic people “represent some of the most vulnerable people in the offender population.”*

Prison governors have told me that, although the number of autistic prisoners isn’t high, they can have a significant impact on the prisons as staff struggle to identify the best ways to support them. Some of the prisons I have visited identify that autistic prisoners are spending, and even choosing to spend, extended periods in the Care and Separation Units (segregation), as they are quieter environments, without contact with other prisoners.

* Talbot, J (2008), No one knows: Prisoners Voices: Experiences of the criminal justice system by prisoners with learning disabilities and difficulties. London: Prison Reform Trust.

TPGA: Does the population the National Autistic Society works with include suspected but undiagnosed autistics?

Hughes: Our Autism Accreditation programme is designed to be beneficial for all autistic prisoners, whether they have a diagnosis or not. For a prison to be accredited, their staff will work with us to implement standards developed specifically for prisons across every area of their work, which will ultimately improve the identification and support of autistic prisoners. These changes include familiarising staff with autism, allowing autistic prisoners to use communal areas at quieter times and making reasonable adjustments to the building, such as creating areas with less clutter. The changes are all relatively straightforward but they can make a huge difference to the lives of prisoners and staff alike.

The development of the prison standards for Accreditation started in 2014 when the mental health team at HMYOI Feltham (run by Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust) asked if we would consider developing our existing Accreditation standards, which have been running for around 25 years. The prison had previously audited their mental health services against another audit tool, but felt that in order to provide the best outcomes for autistic prisoners, they required a specialist response and, most importantly, a whole-prison approach as autistic prisoners were affected by a wide range of issues, including the physical environment. We then worked together to develop standards relating to the custodial aspect of the prison, education mental health and primary care.

As part of this, we also looked at a thematic review that had been carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Prisons and Probation in relation to the treatment of prisoners with learning disabilities and/or autism in the criminal justice system and incorporated their recommendations, particularly around improved communication, which will, of course, benefit to anyone with communication issues.

The then minister, Andrew Selous, heard about the work taking place at HMYOI Feltham and visited to learn more. Following his visit, he wrote to all prison governors across England and Wales, encouraging them to consider Autism Accreditation. Feltham has since become the first prison or YOI to be accredited, and the project last year won the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ Sternberg Clinical Innovation Award. This was shared between project partners Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health NHS Trust (who provide the mental health services at the prison), the National Autistic Society (NAS), and HMYOI Feltham. We’ve also had another 30 prisons and YOIs contact us to express interest in Autism Accreditation and are currently working with eight of them, including Feltham.

TPGA: Do you know if the proportion of incarcerated autistics is similar in other countries?

Hughes: We are no aware of any definite prevalence data about any prison population, nor how this compares to the UK.

TPGA: Does being autistic affect one’s chances of being incarcerated? If so, why?

Hughes: The vast majority of autistic people are law abiding and respect the rules of society. Indeed, in many cases, autistic people are unusually concerned to keep to the letter of the law.

But there are of course cases where autistic people, like anyone else, can commit a crime. There are also cases where someone’s autism may have a bearing on their behaviour. For instance, autistic people can have difficulty understanding unwritten social rules or how the world works, which can leave them open to being taken advantage of by others (Autism Together have been running a campaign around this so-called mate crime).

Autistic people can also be misunderstood by professionals within the criminal justice system, which is something I’m trying to change in my work. There’s a tendency, particularly in relation to some serious crimes including terrorism and sexual offences, for criminal justice professionals to interpret ‘odd’ as ‘dangerous,’ which may bring autistic people into contact with the criminal justice system or to their behaviour being seen as more serious in its intent. For example, if someone commits an offence related to a special interest, they may speak about it in great depth and passion when asked, leading people to think they are cold and calculating. Likewise, many autistic people struggle with eye contact and this can be interpreted as having something to hide.

More and more professionals are starting to understand more about autism and the different ways autistic people may respond to situations. This should help prevent people’s behaviour being misinterpreted and lead to better responses to divert autistic people from offending, or improved programmes to help prevent further offending.

TPGA: What kind of problems do autistic people encounter in prison that tend to be specific to their disability?

Hughes: Autistic people can have extreme sensitivities to things like light and sound, so the often busy and loud prison environment can be a real challenge. Prisoners shout to other prisoners, prison officers shout to prisoners, prison officers shout to other officers, there is the sounds of keys jangling, heavy cell doors being banged, an almost constant smell of cleaning products, strong smell of food at mealtimes, and minimal natural light. All of these can be incredibly challenging for autistic people, especially as there’s nowhere to retreat to.

However, there are other elements of prison that work well for autistic prisoners, who can struggle with change and seek out routine. Prison life is very structured and fairly predictable, with everyone receiving a set of rules when they arrive and seeing the same faces each day. But a sudden break to this routine, can be really hard for autistic prisoners. For instance, if there’s an unannounced cell search or an incident.

Rules aren’t always adhered to as rigorously as some autistic people would like to see and there are times when they may become confrontational with others about this. It’s a unique experience to have written rules of what is expected of you and others and, understandably, it’s really difficult for autistic people where others don’t stick to these rules.

There are ways to help autistic prisoners to cope with these challenges, which is something we make clear in our Autism Accreditation work. Some prisons are beginning to provide information to prisoners explaining that these sudden disruptions can happen, what the process will be before, during and after, and why staff will be unable to tell them when and why this is happening. There will still be autistic people who will be very anxious about this, but their anxiety will be reduced by having prior knowledge that this kind of thing happens and what the process is and, wherever possible, trained staff who understand how challenging this is for them.

TPGA: Are there some situations in which autistic prisoners’ experiences are, relatively, not entirely negative, with regards to providing routine, etc?

Hughes: There are elements of prison that work well for autistic prisoners. Prison life is structured and fairly predictable, with everyone receiving a set of rules when they arrive and seeing the same faces each day.

I’ve also seen first-hand how understanding and support from prison officers and staff can transform the lives of autistic prisoners. For instance, there was an autistic man, who also had OCD and ADHD, in one of the prisons that I worked in. When he arrived, staff didn’t fully understand what any of those acronyms meant, but they knew that he was vulnerable. They provided a support system around him made up of other prisoners and prison officers and saw a real change in his behaviour. The autistic man even said that prison had been the best thing that had happened to him. I have met some incredibly passionate prison officers who want to learn more about autism and the best strategies for supporting people in the prisons that they work in.

TPGA: Do you see many cases in the UK similar to that of African-American autistic Neli Latson, whose arrest and incarceration were largely due to lack of supports and understanding about autism?

Hughes: This is a really shocking case. While it’s in the US, which has a different criminal justice system to the UK, and we’re not aware of such a serious UK case, Neli Latson’s experiences do highlight how autistic people can get caught up in the criminal justice system and how misunderstandings around autism can escalate things. This, and other cases in the UK, demonstrate why it’s so important that the police and other criminal justice personnel have autism training. This would help them to understand the additional communication challenges faced by autistic people and how to prevent escalation.

The NAS has also got lots of information for autistic people and criminal justice professionals on our website, including tips and guides: http://www.autism.org.uk/cjp

TPGA: What kinds of practices and policies would you like to see change, for the well-being of the autistic people in question?

Hughes: The most important change would be to have autism training delivered as a matter of course to all staff working in the criminal justice system, from police and courts to prisons and probation.

We’ve shown how this can work, through our project at HMYOI Feltham and early work with police and probation services. A growing number of staff are also calling for this too as training has a significant impact on their ability to carry out their role. It’s important that each of the agencies share this information with one another too, so they can learn and spread best practice.

Quality standards like Autism Accreditation can also help ensure that there’s the best possible autism practice relevant to each criminal justice agency.

We also believe that there need to be more specialist programmes to divert autistic people from committing offences, sometimes unwittingly, and where they have offended, to prevent re-offending, which understand the particular motivations and communication styles of autistic people.