Picture by andrewrabbott – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The session was chaired by Dr Georgia Niolaki, a Senior Lecturer in SpLD/Dyslexia and Inclusion at Bath Spa University and Trustee of the British Dyslexia Association.
Not only is Dr Niolaki a Lecturer in Dyslexia but she is also dyslexic herself. Despite living with dyslexia all her life, she has managed to become bilingual and now dedicates her career to conducting research into the condition.
She was joined in the session by numerous other experts and academics as they looked to understand how the justice system can better support those living with dyslexia.
Dyslexia and the prison population
One of the panellists was David Breakspear, a Criminal Justice Champion and a former prisoner. While David isn’t dyslexic himself, he is neurodivergent. He spoke about the needs of prisoners with similar conditions and how the justice system can improve in this regard, based on his experiences:
“One of the biggest issues within the criminal justice system is the lack of awareness and understanding from prison staff for people with neurodivergent conditions. You’ll find that within the prison service itself, neurodiverse people are more likely to suffer than neurotypical people and this is something that needs to change.
We don’t expect people in prisons to be able to diagnose these conditions but what we do want is for prison staff to at least be aware that certain prisoners are behaving in a certain way because of their neurodivergent condition. It leads to misunderstandings on the wings because people aren’t receiving the support they should be.”
David has been working with the Revolving Doors Agency over the past 12 months to try and ensure neurodiverse prisoners are receiving better support. He has been in discussions with the Ministry of Justice and has been reassured that they finally appear to be taking the issue seriously.
One of the key focus points of the session revolved around literacy skills. It’s imperative that these skills are improved to help prevent prisoners from re-offending once they are released. Without adequate support and appreciation for dyslexic prisoners, though, how is this possible?
Melanie Jameson, Founder of Dyslexia Consultancy Malvern, said:
“One thing I’ve been banging my head against the brick wall about since 1995 is that I believe all prisoners should be screened for dyslexia when they enter prison, not just those who are going on to education. This is because so many prisoners are going to duck education because of their experience in schools.
So, we need an effective screening and follow-up and we need to make sure that it’s clear that people aren’t just using the term ‘assessment’ like they so often do. We then need to make sure that appropriate support is given to those who are found to be neurodivergent through the screening process.”
Once this process is followed, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the literacy skills of prisoners will improve. Those who hide away from education in prison due to their experiences in school will have better support provided to them which could make a monumental difference to their skills and outlook on learning.
While screening is a great way to diagnose neurodivergent prisoners, it isn’t much use if the prison staff aren’t willing to change how they behave around these types of prisoners. In regard to improving their knowledge and skills, Karen Ryan, the Director of Prison Delivery at The Shannon Trust, said:
“We often without volunteers going into prisons we really do focus on widening awareness around the needs of people who struggle with reading because it’s so easy to take it for granted.
If you thrust a piece of paper into a dyslexic person’s hands they might act in other ways to hide the fact that they can’t read it which could get them in trouble. So, we often do briefing sessions with staff to give them a bit of a sense of what it would be like not to be able to read.
This is something that would be really helpful for all members of staff across the justice system to take part in.”
There are still people out there that don’t understand that one of the main roles of a prison is to rehabilitate and help offenders. For those prisoners who suffer from neurodivergent conditions, including dyslexia, the rehabilitation process can be incredibly difficult. To listen to the inquiry session in full, head over to our YouTube channel.