South Wales prison improves standards by increasing support for those with autism
Autism affects the way someone communicates and engages with others, but also how they perceive and experience the world around them throughout their whole life. So when autistic people end up in prison, their disability may have a bearing on their time within the criminal justice system.
Some autistic people can struggle to interpret other people’s motives, recognise social cues or unwritten rules, and understand possible consequences, particularly in times of high anxiety. Elements such as loud noises, bright lights and busy environments can also cause feelings of anxiety for autistic people.
In 2008, The Prison Reform Trust shared concerns about how prison environment could affect those with learning disabilities such as autism. According to this review, prisoners with learning disabilities could potentially fail to comply with their sentence plan due to a lack of understanding of what is expected of them. Without the right support, they may be vulnerable to misunderstanding the rules, bullying, negative peer influence and isolation.
Those who are responsible for the prisoners’ care play a fundamental part in ensuring their safety, wellbeing, and successful rehabilitation. And we believe that with the right support and specialist programmes, we can improve their rehabilitation, and prevent reoffending after release.
In 2012, HMP Parc introduced a learning disability pathway, which would enable prison staff to offer a more responsive and appropriate approach to the management of prisoners with learning disabilities.
Our staff have made tremendous progress in building on this initial strategy, which received a significant stamp of approval when the prison was recently accredited by The National Autistic Society (NAS).
Supporting those with autism in our own communities is all about understanding their needs, and the same should apply in prison. When autistic prisoners remain undiagnosed, we run a risk of not meeting their needs, which is a crucial part of ensuring their wellbeing.
At HMP Parc, we have clear procedures in place to identify prisoners with learning disabilities. During each prisoner’s induction, we use the rigorous ‘Do It Profiler’ process, which assesses Learning Difficulties and Disabilities (LDD) needs, looking at aspects such as numeracy, literacy, communication and concentration.
For our staff, it is an invaluable resource, providing insight into each prisoner’s needs, allowing them to provide better support. Alongside this, the induction pack, which prisoners receive on their first night and which contains important information about life at HMP Parc, has been translated into an easy read format.
Prisoners who are diagnosed with a learning disability will have two mentors; they assist the individual with basics such as telephone facilities, self-care, meal choices and canteen arrangements. But more importantly, they provide fundamental support around social interactions with staff and other prisoners. This initiative aims to reduce the risk of bullying by other prisoners, and offers a better way of monitoring an individual’s vulnerability of being drawn into activity that breaches prison rules.
A specific unit has been designated as a Supported Living Unit for prisoners with learning difficulties. From 2016, extensive resource was provided to up skill staff and gradually change the environment and remit of the wing.
Peer support mentors help to provide a range of educational, employment and physical education activities that are tailored to the individual’s need, and educational ‘Individual Learning Plans’ are also in place for students
We have employed two full-time social workers to assess social care needs and assist with individual care planning. They have also agreed to form part of the weekly timetable on Wednesday afternoons to see staff and prisoners with any concerns they may have.
Committed and dedicated staff
From directors to practitioners and officers, there is a shared understanding and commitment towards this support programme from the whole staffing group at HMP Parc. Their enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed, having recently been recognised at the Autism Professionals' Awards in 2018.
The NAS accreditation process typically takes between 3 and 5 years to complete, but HMP Parc was accredited in under 2 years, which is a testament to the exceptional efforts and dedication shown by all those involved. Our members of staff, from learning disability nurses, to education teams and operational staff, all work hard to provide exceptional standards in what can sometimes be a challenging environment.
Some have shown particular determination when it was felt that prisoners required more attention and support, ensuring that those who were showing violent or unsociable behaviour received the right counselling and the right guidance. Some took it in turns to check up on a prisoner every hour of the night after identifying his severe anxiety which was linked to monophobia (fear of being alone).
Making sure that every member of staff feels involved and responsible for the programme was definitely key to its success. There is a clear commitment to ensuring our staff are trained to understand and support autism and LDD. Our operational team is supported by clinically trained professionals such as learning disability nurses, support workers and postgraduate behaviour analysis students. We have also implemented a Supported Living Plan (SLP) process, which correctly informs residential staff on how to appropriately care for individuals with health and social care needs.
Sustainable solutions for the future
The efficiency of the systems we currently have in place have encouraged us to look at more ways to develop these efforts. We regularly attend professional forums such as the Broadmoor Conference and HMP Whatton Conferences to share and hear about best practice.
By providing better support to those with autism, simply by understanding their needs and assisting them accordingly, violent and unsociable behaviours are being addressed in a much more empathetic manner.
The NAS accreditation standards have encouraged us to broaden our thinking with regards to ‘safeguarding’ in general. We are currently in the process of writing a safeguarding strategy, which will include sections on learning difficulties, personality disorder, palliative care, needs for older prisoners and the existing supported living plan process.