We often look at the issues around hidden disabilities, and now one of our projects has involved studying the provisions made for disabled people who could themselves be described as hidden – behind the bars of the country’s prisons.
Some people might take the view that prisoners forfeited their rights, even if they are disabled, when they committed the crime that led to them being locked up. But common decency ensures they do have rights, and that is backed up by various pieces of legislation.
Prisons have to reflect the rest of society and they are therefore covered by the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. They need to be diverse and inclusive and, in meeting the needs of people with disabilities, they are expected to make reasonable adjustments – for prisoners, staff and visitors.
Prisoners have various disabilities, and, as happens outside prison, long term inmates might become acquire an impairment as a result of illness, an accident or ageing.
We were not surprised to find that facilities for disabled people in prisons varied. Some of the newer prisons have been designed and built to provide some of the features required by disabled people, but other prisons are much older and more difficult to modernise.
Some prisoners are wheelchair-users but there are far more ambulant disabled people and elderly people than there used to be, because the prison population has increased.
We found only one truly accessible cell, large enough to accommodate a wheelchair user and with an accessible WC. There is also the question of providing accessible training and education centres for prisoners.
We found that a lot of the doorways were very narrow, and the space was a lot tighter than you would accept in other buildings. This adds to the other difficulties encountered when trying to move disabled prisoners around the building – negotiating gates and steps.
There is more flexibility when it comes to making reasonable adjustments for staff. Operational constraints can present problems where staff mix with prisoners, but there are other areas, such as admin blocks, where prisoners don’t have access. Also, it may be possible for some staff to transfer between different roles.
The visiting hall is where you get the widest range of people. Young children visiting parents, elderly people visiting friends and family, and everybody in between. The visitor centre must be accessible and provide all the usual facilities, taking into account the requirements of prisoners and visitors – and the need for security.
A guidance booklet produced by the Prison Reform Trust in partnership with HM Prison and Probation Service sets out some types of hidden and the difficulties which can be created in terms of seeing, hearing, speaking and getting around.
It also highlights difficulties with operating door handles, using cutlery and accessing education – the library should have books and information in large print, easy to read formats and in audio.
The guide advises prisoners to inform staff if they have difficulties using stairs, getting into a bunk bed, showering or using the toilet, filling in forms, even telling the time.
It notes: “Prisoners with a disability should be helped to do the same things as other prisoners, like work and going to the gym.”