Autistic people in general, do crave and follow rules. Rules provide a certainty of action and consequence, to someone who finds the world and its social conventions, confusing unpredictable and upsetting. This attraction to rules is seen in the hyper-morality of many autistic people; the intense and unwavering dedication to “doing the right thing”, to such a degree that often marks them out for bullying in the school environment, from peers who are far more ready and willing to bend the rules as suits. But autistic people are not automatons, blindly following rules without will-power or conscience. And neither are they incapable of breaking rules; or more specifically to the purpose of this post, the law: Being autistic doesn’t mean an impossibility of criminal intent, and is not protection from legitimate criminal prosecution (though for particular criminal acts it may be a relevant consideration to both the guilt and the punishment).
So, inevitably, there are some autistic people who end up in prisons. Indeed, they may be proportionally over-represented in the criminal justice system, and / or under-diagnosed within the prison population. What that means though can vary wildly; perhaps the numbers are higher because of inadequate understanding by judges and lawyers dealing with their cases, so that those who should get access to certain relevant defences, are unintentionally denied them. Perhaps they are victims of negative police attitudes towards autistic people (such as in the two cases I refer to later in this post, and discussed in a previous post). Perhaps their behaviours are more often dangerous to others, themselves and property (sometimes ending in horrific outcomes at the hands of the justice system). Or maybe autistic people are simply like anyone else; making bad decisions sometimes, and paying the price, and the higher numbers of them going through the criminal justice system are not strongly substantiated or not significantly higher.
I came across a very interesting Radio NZ podcast today, which has one of the lawyers for Arie Smith-Voorkamp talking about the relationship between autism and the law. The lawyer speaks in part from personal experience, since he is on the spectrum too. There are a lot of very interesting points made in the podcast. One of those was that prison can actually provide the routine and predictability that autistic people need so much, in a way that the non-prison life has not. No one thinks this is a good thing in the broader context of a good life; prison is not a desirable location, and the fact that it may be viewed as desirable in some ways for some people, speaks about a failure within society at a number of levels.
Of course, once within the prison system, autistic people need supports that other inmates may not. Not just to avoid undue and excessive cruelty, but also for the purposes of effective rehabilitation.
Prior to hearing the podcast, I had only heard particularly upsetting things about the experiences of autistic people within prison (though I have found other sources after that which refer to this aspect of routine as a positive one, including consideration of getting all of one’s needs (food, shelter etc) met). Two prime examples of the particularly negative experiences, are recent New Zealand cases. The first is the autistic man who was wrongly convicted of rape, and spent his two years in prison deeply withdrawn and literally living in silence. The other more recent example is of Arie who was on suicide watch during his time in prison, and is very afraid of going back inside (he is now even afraid to leave his own home).
It seems to me that the “positive” sides of prison – the routine, predictability and having all one’s needs met – are only positives for a person who isn’t been adequately cared for outside of prison. If someone has that level of need, that prison is a preferable option to life free, then clearly someone along the way has seriously dropped the ball for that individual. That problem – prison being a better life option – isn’t just a message you hear about autistic people; it is more generally something you hear about any desperate or forgotten population (such as the homeless). It’s often said in response to such claims, that the solution is to make prison less appealing, so it’s not such an attractive option. However one may feel about that for other populations, it’s hardly a solution to the problem for autistic people who are struggling day-to-day.
However experiences of prisons, and prisons themselves, differ, there are some things you can say with a fair amount of surety for autistic inmates: Their autism makes them easy potential targets within the prison population, at the hands of both inmates and prison officers (though this piece does shed an interesting perspective on how the lack of eye contact and inner-withdrawal of an autistic person, can be useful traits in the prison environment). Their experience within prison could affectively amount to mental torture if their special needs are not taken into account. Their ability to access appropriate care and to demand their legal rights within that environment, is hampered more so than for your average prisoner. Their autism must be understood and taken into account, and that currently does not appear to be what is happening. I’ve read of initiatives trying to correct this oversight, but these issues are still very present and very real.
An autistic person behind bars, is still a person who has some basic rights within a civilised society. Those basic rights are less likely to be met, and their punishment is potentially much more severe, if their autism is dismissed or forgotten.