People with learning disabilities and difficulties in the justice system are not getting equal access to the law or support to successfully complete prison or community sentences because information presented to them is not made accessible, says the Prison Reform Trust.
At a meeting in the House of Lords on 22 October 2013, organised by the charity KeyRing Living Support Networks working with the Prison Reform Trust, former prisoners and people working in the justice system called for an expansion in the use of Easy Read materials.
Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice, spoke on recent developments to improve the accessibility of criminal justice information. Lord Bradley, shadow health minister and author of the influential review of the treatment of people with mental health needs in the justice system, hosted the event.
Currently, up to a third of people in prison have either a learning disability or learning difficulty which can affect their ability to read and to understand information.
Seven per cent of prisoners have an IQ of less than 70 and a further 25 per cent have an IQ between 70 - 79.
Documents and guidance throughout the criminal justice system are often very formal and include legal and technical terms that are not commonly used. People with learning disabilities or difficulties can find it hard to follow court proceedings or understand what is expected of them and to work towards their rehabilitation.
One serving prisoner interviewed in the Prison Reform Trust report Prisoners Voices said: "The forms [used in prison] are so long winded, it’s a big sheet. I think they make them a bit scary, it’s very formal and they don’t need to be so bad, and then you have to pluck up the courage to ask for help and you feel inadequate and show weakness."
Speaking about his own experience in prison, Danny, a member of KeyRing’s ‘Working for Justice’ group said: "The rules aren’t explained to you. You’re given a pack when you go into prison: these are the rules, this is what you’ll abide by. But, especially with me because I can’t read or write, so to go and ask somebody, ‘would you read this to me’, all you got was ‘we’re not secretaries’".
Easy Read uses simple words and clear pictures to make written information more accessible to those who require it, enabling people to access the same information that others have. Recent debates in the House of Lords have highlighted the importance of providing accessible information.
During the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, the government committed to producing Easy Read versions of licence and supervision condition documents to help ensure that people with communication difficulties are able to understand their supervision requirements and what is expected of them.
At last week's meeting, the Minister and Parliamentarians heard from those already using Easy Read in their roles within the criminal justice system and those in government already promoting its use. People with learning disabilities spoke about why accessible information, such as Easy Read, is so important.
Commenting, Lord Bradley said: "In my report I drew attention to the importance of effective communication. Easy Read is a good example of how information can be presented in a way that helps people with comprehension and literacy difficulties to understand what is happening and what is expected of them. This will make things fairer for vulnerable people in the justice system".
Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "People with learning disabilities caught up in the justice system are often vulnerable and isolated in a scary and incomprehensible world. A lack of support sets many offenders up to fail and can lead to injustice. Greater use of easy read would help ensure people can take part in trial proceedings and understand what is expected of them in prison and the community."