There is little doubt that vulnerable inmates make up a significant percentage of the prison population. So, what do we mean when we use the term ‘vulnerable’ inmate? In the context of this article, I refer to those inmates who have a ‘hidden disability’. Inmates who have no obvious physical disability but something which makes them act differently, think differently, and process information differently. More importantly, perhaps, it means they cope differently. For this class of inmate, a prison sentence can be very difficult indeed.
Hidden disabilities and diagnosis of vulnerable inmates
Unfortunately, hidden disabilities are routinely undiagnosed, misdiagnosed or just not understood. Of course, this can result in all sorts of adverse consequences for the vulnerable inmate. If you do not truly recognise and understand the behaviour of inmates with such difficulties it can mean:
- They are not properly assessed for prison courses
- They are not judged effectively in adjudications
- They are not dealt with correctly in disciplinary proceedings before the governor
- The levels of perceived risk are not assessed justly when dealing with recall, and during parole reviews
It is all too easy to label such inmates as simply unruly, troublesome, unable or unwilling to engage. In reality, for a whole variety of reasons, the behaviour of such inmates is often misunderstood or misconstrued. Indeed, one of the major problems is a lack of diagnosis. Years ago, if someone was considered to have attention issues (now commonly referred to as ADHD) they would likely be considered simply disruptive. If someone couldn’t read or write well, they might be labelled stupid. If someone was perceived to behave in different way, they might be referred to as being odd. Of course, nowadays, diagnosis is much better. However, it is still far from where it needs to be. Moreover, professionals will often diagnose an individual as being ‘on the spectrum’. In reality, this tells us very little. The (autistic) spectrum is so vast that it is difficult to see how we are all not on it in some way or another.
Example of how the system can fail a vulnerable person
I have a particular interest in representing the interests of clients considered to be potentially vulnerable. This can be someone with learning difficulties or some other special need or requirement – intellectual, emotional, mental disability or difficulty. A few years ago, I represented a highly vulnerable elderly lady. She was charged with the gross negligence manslaughter of her husband. It was alleged that she had failed in her duty of care to look after him sufficiently at home and as a consequence he died. It was one of those cases that reeked of injustice. In fact, there was little doubt that she had been failed by the system. She was clearly vulnerable and unable to look after herself properly, let alone her husband. She was rightly acquitted. It is one of those cases I still think about frequently. The decision to prosecute her was appalling. Justice was achieved but not without considerable stress.
Parole reviews for vulnerable inmates
Parole reviews obviously and understandably focus on an inmate’s past behaviour and make a prediction on future conduct when assessing levels of perceived risk.
Psychologists and Psychiatrists feature a lot in parole reviews. They address risk levels and look at behaviours, but they do not make any formal diagnosis of inmates. They may not be experts in recognising hidden disabilities of which there are many. My point is that, not every prison inmate who does not or cannot behave or engage is doing so just to be awkward or rebellious. For a good number of inmates, poor behaviour is explained by something more than just a desire to be disruptive. There can be underlying medical reasons which can help explain poor conduct, a lack of focus, a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, a lack of willingness to engage. All of these are common entries in parole dossiers. They are often used by the parole board to assess risk and refuse release or progression. It is with this is mind that I say more needs to be done to assist vulnerable inmates. Prison staff, probation officers, prison lawyers and the parole board all need better education on the subject.
Vulnerable defendants at trial
Defendants at trial who have hidden disabilities are also at risk of real injustice. Juries, judges and magistrates need to understand and be told when a defendant has difficulties. How can a defendant, for example, with ADHD or dyslexia, or on the autistic spectrum be expected to cope and engage with their lawyers in lengthy or complex cases? Their evidence may be affected by their disability. They may not do well in cross examination. This can adversely affect the final outcome of the trial. Instructing a lawyer early on in the process – one who understands the true impact of vulnerability – is absolutely key. Indeed, you should always have representation as early as possible – see our blog.
Wells Burcombe can help
If you are affected by the content of this article, please get in touch. We represent inmates during criminal investigations, at trial, at adjudications and through the parole process. We don’t just have an understanding of the law and procedure, but a deep understanding of what it means to be vulnerable.
Contact David Wells direct on 07939 026751, or call the Wells Burcombe offices in St Albans, Hertfordshire on 01727 840900 or West Drayton, London on 01895 449288, or email us via our contact page.