Creating a greater awareness of disabilities in the prison environment

  • Blog

Creating a greater awareness of disabilities in the prison environment

“The prison environment—with its loud, unpredictable noises, bright lights, unpleasant odours, complicated social dynamics and bureaucracy—would be difficult for anyone to navigate, but experts say that it’s particularly challenging for autistic people and people with similar disabilities.” 

Unlocked participant Andrew recently took on the role of Disability Advocacy Wellbeing Network (DAWN) representative at his prison. In this role, he aims to create a positive and supportive culture on the landings for prisoners and outline the ways in which prison officers can create processes to accommodate for mental health and disabilities on the landings.

One of the ways in which he’s working toward these goals has been through sensory-focused presentations, delivered to prison staff and prisoners. We talked with Andrew about his experiences so far in this role:

What approach have you taken so far in your role as DAWN rep? 

“I recently ran multiple disability awareness presentations for prison staff and prisoners. I wanted to make it as interactive as possible, so I played with their senses in asking them to do tasks, so that they would learn about invisible disabilities like autism, and expressive communication.

“The activities consisted of exercises such as a wheelchair mobility activity and creating an environment that enables sensory overload for the participants while they try to undergo knowledge and comprehension exercises etc. I noticed that this method really had an impact in getting feelings of empathy out of people, because they could see and feel how it really works.

“When they asked me to run an event on disability awareness and I said I’d set up a forum. I wanted it to be more meaningful than just talking to people, so I thought I would make them engaged. The whole point of a forum is to open discussion. I felt that if they could experience a few of the challenges that people with hidden disabilities have, they could come up with effective solutions on how to help them.”

Have you had any response from prisoners since? 

“I’ve had a few of them asking for more. There’s one prisoner with ASD that I’m trying to keep from being transferred because he’d like to stay on our landing and work more with us to see how it goes. I was surprised about his decision as he’s trying to stay on the largest wing, the largest, busiest and loudest wing. So, I assumed he’d not want to stay there because of the sensory overload. But I think he feels supported here.

“A lot of prisoners have been really engaged, coming up with their own ideas which HMP Bedford has started to implement – such as recognition disability bands. Prisoners on my wing have also taken on a more active role in supporting people with disabilities by helping them read letters, engage with education, cell cleans and raising awareness to myself and other prison officers.

“I’m trying to set up a positive culture towards disabilities on my wing. I’d like to think that over time it will work. I also want to set up a culture steering towards mental health, with a trauma-informed approach to impact how prison officers and prisoners treat each other.”