In this guest blog post, Hugh Asher provides an overview and summary of the Learning Disability and Autism Awareness Training delivered to staff in the criminal justice system by KeyRing as part of their ‘Equal and Fair’ Project.
There are many people in the criminal justice system who have a learning difficulty/disability or autism, and successive reports have highlighted the need for frontline staff to receive training in this area.
The Bradley Report recommended that front-line staff in the criminal justice system should receive training to ensure they can provide the most effective support for individuals with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
Similarly, the first Joint Chief Inspectors’ report into the treatment of offenders with learning disabilities within the criminal justice system described how “a simple lack of knowledge and training led to offenders with a learning disability being perceived as a problem to be processed, rather than an individual with particular needs requiring individual help”. In part because of the hidden nature of autism, the inspection report states that it uses the term learning disability to include people with autism spectrum conditions.
Dr. Nancy Loucks, in the Prison Reform Trust’s No-one Knows report, described how “20-30% of offenders have learning difficulties and learning disabilities that interfere with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system” and that this group of offenders “present numerous difficulties for the staff who work with them, especially when these staff often lack specialist training or are unfamiliar with the challenges of working with this group”. For the purposes of this post, the phrase ‘learning differences’ will be used to describe both learning disabilities (those with impaired cognitive and social functioning) and learning difficulties (including the specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyscalculia).
The Equal and Fair Project
Between 2015 and 2018, the KeyRing Equal and Fair Project delivered over 100 one-day training and awareness sessions to over 1,600 members of staff from across the criminal justice system. The training was co-delivered by a member of the Working for Justice (WfJ) Group and myself as project manager. WfJ are a group of people with learning differences and / or autism who have first-hand experience of the criminal justice system. The group is a collaboration between KeyRing and Prison Reform Trust. It was originally established to inform the No One Knows research, which looked at the prevalence and associated needs of offenders with learning difficulties and learning disabilities. Group members also had input into the design and content of the training.
The training delivery was tailored to meet the needs of the participants. It was usually delivered in-house so all the participants would be from the same area of the criminal justice system - such as the police, the prison service or the probation service. For this reason, we divided the training into three modules. The first two were delivered to all participants and the third was tailored to meet the needs of the specific audience to which the training was being delivered.
The first module looked at what a learning disability, a learning difficulty and an autistic spectrum condition was; how it might affect a person’s initial involvement in the criminal justice system and how it might affect their experience once in it. As they are ‘hidden’ conditions, and as many people with learning differences can often mask or cloak the problems that they experience, a core part of the first module was how to identify people who may have additional needs, as well as the type of 'reasonable adjustments’ that may be required to improve the support that they receive.
Communication difficulties are a common part of learning differences and autistic spectrum conditions, and, beyond this, are widespread in the criminal justice system. For this reason, the second module focused on identifying and responding to speech, language and communication difficulties. It also shared best practice on producing written documents that are accessible to the widest range of people.
The third and final module explored the specific implications for working with people with learning differences and autism in the relevant part of the criminal justice system for the audience. It sought to help them to identify ‘quick wins’ that they could take back with them and easily implement and build into their working practices.
Evaluation and Reflection
During the training, Danny (from the WfJ group) described his experiences and explained what others can do to enable those with learning differences to receive fair treatment. Participants told us this was one of the most valued and vital components. For the WfJ members themselves, involvement in the design and delivery of the project raised their self-esteem and increased their confidence. At one prison we delivered an additional half-day motivational discussion to a small group of prisoners. When my co-trainer Danny introduced himself and told the group how long he had spent in prison, they all sat bolt-upright as if they were on strings and a puppeteer had lifted them all up at once. It was probably the highlight of the whole project - the group appeared to hang on every word that Danny said, and it made me feel very proud of his achievements.
Due to the high uptake of the training in certain areas, we were not able to deliver it as widely as we would have liked. In the future we hope to target areas such as the judiciary, magistrates, barristers and solicitors, and will aim to ring-fence resources to ensure that session can be delivered to people in these harder to reach areas of the criminal justice system, where we believe it would be advantageous to do so.
Although the training is no longer available free of charge, it can be delivered at a reasonable cost and anyone interested should contact Tracy Hammond at email@example.com