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There is a well-known relationship between criminality and abnormal family dynamics: absent fathers or mothers, whether absent physically or emotionally; child abuse (especially sexual); and wife abuse. Everyone understands this and since there is little that can be done about it without drastically altering our comfortable life styles, it makes a convenient scapegoat which we can criticise easily over tea and buns or beer and bums. Less commonly known is the relationship between criminality and learning disabilities. There seems to be a direct line which goes like this: learning disability in primary school leads to school problems which lead to school failure followed in a number of cases by delinquent adolescent behaviour which predisposes to criminal behaviour, ending up either in prison or Laperouse, where tours can be organised for tourists to see your grave. The UK Prison Reform Trust has just last month published its first research findings on the frequency of various types of learning disabilities and mental disor- ders among men and women imprisoned in the UK. There are none yet on people imprisoned in cemeteries. The results make fascinating reading: “Seven per cent of prisoners have an IQ of less than 70 and a further 25 per cent have an IQ between 70 and 79.”
That means seven out of every 100 prisoners are officially classified as mentally retarded and 25 of every 100 have a moderate intellectual deficiency and would have needed special educational services in school. “Dyslexia is three to four times more common amongst prisoners than the general population. Twenty-thirty per cent of offenders have learning disabilities that interfere with their ability to cope with the criminal justice system. The term learning disabilities or difficulties includes people who experience difficulties in communicating and expressing themselves and understanding ordinary social clues; have unseen or hidden disabilities such as dyslexia or are on the autistic spectrum.” If you add those with intellectual problems to those with learning disabilities, half of the men in prison have problems learning. “Prisoners with learning disabilities are unable to access prison information routinely; over two-thirds have problems reading prison information.” “Prisoners with learning disabilities are discriminated against personally, systematically and routinely as they enter and travel through the criminal justice system; are five times as likely as prisoners without such impairments to have been subject to control and restraint techniques and more than three times as likely to have spent time in segregation.” The situation with young offenders (aged 15 to 18) is just as bad: 46 per cent of them are rated as underachieving at school and 25 per cent have special educational needs.
The majority of people entering prison have never been evaluated for learning disabilities. Once in prison there is no routine or systematic procedure for identifying them. Consequently their particular needs are rarely recognised or met. No wonder prisoners with learning disabilities are “more than three times as likely as prisoners without such impairments to have clinically significant depression and anxiety. Nearly half, 47 per cent, suffer from a major depressive disorder” But that’s not all. At any one time, “ten per cent of the prison population has serious mental health problems. Seven per cent of male and 14 per cent of female prisoners have a psychotic disorder (schizophrenia or bipolar disorder).” This is 14 and 23 times the level in the general population. Neurotic and personality disorders are particularly prevalent. “Forty per cent of male and 63 per cent of female prisoners have a neurotic disorder, over three times the level in the general population. Sixty-two per cent of male and 57 per cent of females have a personality disorder.” For example, women in prison are twice as likely to have an eating disorder as women in the general population and that’s saying a lot. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to relate these adult neurotic and personality disorders with learning disabilities as children.
It’s no surprise then to find out that ten per cent of men and a staggering 30 per cent of women have had a previous psychiatric admission before they entered prison. What is particularly horrible is that 35 per cent of 13-18-year-old girls and 13 per cent of boys in custody were identified with depression and 17 per cent and seven per cent respectively deliberately harmed themselves in an attempt to get help and to get out of situations that they could no longer tolerate. One quarter of self-harm incidents occurred within the first month of arriving in prison. If these findings hold up to further scrutiny, we may have found the means to substantially decrease our prison population by setting up early childhood screening and diagnostic facilities and the appropriate individualised educational plans for these unfortunate children. Otherwise, as the report concluded, “prison has become, to far too large an extent, the default setting for those with a wide range of mental and emotional disorders.” It is time that we take a good, long, hard look at what we are doing to our socially disadvantaged children in the public schools, at the very real possibility that we are not dealing appropriately with a range of biologically induced illnesses and, in the process, creating monsters.
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