Page last updated at 08:27 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Justice system 'fails vulnerable'

Prisoner's cell
More than half of vulnerable prisoners report being scared in jail

The criminal justice system is failing people with learning disabilities from the point of arrest to their release from prison, a report suggests.

The Prison Reform Trust said vulnerable people were being discriminated against in police stations, courts and jails.

At worst, a lack of police safeguards raised the chances of a miscarriage of justice, the three-year review found.

The Ministry of Justice said all agencies were committed to care and support for people with disabilities.

The Prison Reform Trust blamed policy makers for failing to end discrimination for the 20-30% of UK offenders with learning disabilities.

Trust director Juliet Lyon said: "What we want to see is government really complying with the Disability Discrimination Act, which would mean looking into this in much more depth.

"It would mean introducing assessments, it would mean understanding whether people are fit to plead, whether there are miscarriages of justice and what extra can be done to train staff to work in a way that actually helps people navigating a system that they really don't understand," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'Fog of anxiety'

The study is based on more than 170 prisoner interviews in 10 jails in England and Wales and four in Scotland.

It has been submitted to the independent Bradley review, which is expected to report to ministers in the New Year.

In police stations it concluded that:

  • Less that a third of vulnerable people got appropriate support during interviews
  • Half of those with learning disabilities said they did not know what would happen to them once they had been charged
  • Some alleged maltreatment by police or felt they had been manipulated into agreeing to an interview without support

One female prisoner, who was denied her medication, told the Prison Reform Trust: "They left it for three days and then even when I went to court, I didn't have my medication and I was shaking."

The report concluded that in courts:

  • More than a fifth did not understand what was going on
  • Most said the use of simpler language would have helped them

A young offender said: "I couldn't really hear. I couldn't understand but I said, 'Yes, whatever,' to anything because if I say, 'I don't know' they look at me as if I'm thick."

The study found many prisoners could not read or write, including one who said that his mother thought he wad dead when he was imprisoned because it took him three months to get help to write to her.

In prisons, it found:

  • More than half of vulnerable people reported being scared
  • They were five times more likely than other prisoners to have been subjected to control and restraint techniques
  • They were three times more likely to have spent time in segregation

"This is a harrowing account of what it is like to travel through the criminal justice system in a fog of anxiety and well-founded fear of bullying, not understanding or half understanding what is happening to you," said Ms Lyon.

"This report raises important questions about how these vulnerable people got caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place."

The study recommends setting up multi-agency forums, identifying vulnerable people at the point of arrest and system-wide reforms from staff training to support and advocacy.

The option to divert them away from the criminal justice system should also be considered at an early stage, it said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "All government agencies involved in the criminal justice system, including Her Majesty's Court Service and Her Majesty's Prison Service, are committed to ensuring those with disabilities are given the necessary care and support."

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