Autism in Prisons

Fences of a Federal Prison in the U.S.

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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.

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21 Responses to Autism in Prisons

  1. Sharon says:

    Having worked with prisoners on their transition from jail back to the community for many years I have some experience in this area. While I see the routine of prison life suiting someone on the spectrum, a major issue I immediately considered were the rules of the sub culture. Whilst the expectations of inmates by authorities are clearly spelled out and easy to understand for someone with Autism, what they would find extremely difficult to navigate would be prisoner culture with it’s particular terminology and unwritten rules. Failing to comprehend and abide by these would create an unsafe and chaotic experience, and would mean those on the spectrum would be particularly vulnerable to attack for unknown transgressions.

    • Good points and insights Sharon; thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge. This is an area I personally know very little about; it’s good to hear directly from someone who understands the potential and real challenges.

  2. u4ea says:

    psychopathy is just as much a disability as autism is, and those prisoners are disregarded completely.

    • I’m sure there are many groups in prison that face all sorts of issues that go under-recognised and under-addressed; my post was specifically about the group that have autism and the challenges they face because of their autism. I wouldn’t venture to comment one way or the other about the specific challenges faced by psychopaths within the prison environment.

  3. Tyler says:

    What the hell is wrong with you, are you just stupid? First of all prison really does not seem like a good place for Autistic people, and it is not all about following rules, you really think the other inmates follow rules and never engage in “bullying”(seems like to tame a word) I find that Autistic people offer suffer greatly from authority figures be they legal or otherwise unintentionally pissing them off or just making good targets. Also though how insulting, the notion that Autistic people would actually crave a place like prison, you couldn’t be more wrong.

    • Please read the actual post before going off like this. I expressly stated:

      “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.”

      Also, the view about prison been desirable for some autistic people was one taken from the podcast I provided a link to, it was not a view I created myself. Listen to the podcast for yourself.

      If you continue to attack in this completely un-founded way (calling someone “stupid” and not reading the post you’re responding to, is really unacceptable), then you will not be welcome on my blog. Please be more thoughtful and civil in the future.

  4. Lee Parkerson says:

    my autistic son who is also severe ocd was baker acted due to a new medication he had severe side effects on perephenazine.He had not slept in forty eight hours and was crawling out of his skin.On arrival of the facility my son said they gave him a pill probably haldahl and put him to sleep after eleven hours they called me to pick him up or he was going home in a cab. I said “call his outpatient doctor as he works with you” They refused and screamed theirs nothing wrong with him and he is coming home in a cab”.Fifteen minutes lator my son walked in the door I live thirtyfive minutes from the place.My son walked in the door stabbed himself with a corkscrew and bit my leg.I made a second crisis call only for my son to end up in jail on a felony two in jail for thirty eight days crawling on his elbows and knees,drugged illeagally .Come to find out my son saw no doctor at this hospital due to having medicaid and being disabled.The samsha grant patient got the bed at onethousand dollars a day versus medicaid.And our head judge was on the board of this hospital.The jail made probably thirtyeight thousand on the hhhs grant in the jail suddenly my autistic son was worth more than a buck.I got case dismissed and have three doctors under prosecution and a civil rights case and federal inspector on this .Also the corrupt sherriff told my son he was going to disney world then through him in jail i am outraged

    • Lee, I don’t know how I missed your comment from the start of the year, so sorry about that. I hope in the intervening months that the matter has been resolved. I can’t comment further because I don’t understand a lot of the terms and references you are using, I’m in New Zealand and I get the impression you’re from the USA (?). Do feel free to provide an update to the situation.

  5. Jane Sims {Holt} says:

    I do have a son who s life is ruioned because the courts have ignored his Autusum he recentley shoplifted and was scoked around by the police daptment and then charged him with get this ROBBREY. AFTER he was in custudy the officer who left very visiuol marks he told him he was sorry it has been 3 weeks he is still in jail and his face visioly swollown. How do I get better help for him.

    • Jane, you get him a lawyer, and you tell the lawyer that your son has autism. The lawyer may wish to get a clinical psychologist and perhaps the local autism support charity involved too, but the first step is getting the lawyer sorted out.

  6. anonymous says:

    It is an outrage that there is not more help out there for autistic adults. My son has PDD and now is at the police station $240 for bail because he went to the police station and they found him behind the police station. I do not have an ATM card and cannot get him out. His life is a nightmare and now my life is a nightmare. Want to get him help, but he has been denied by DDS three times. He refuses to take meds and fearful of authority, what do we do? I do not want him in jail I want him to get help>

  7. elienai says:

    I have a nephew recently got sent to Metro West for committing a horrible crime he has autism. The Facility has him with regular adults he belongs with mentally challenged adults under medical attention and medication. His doctor said that my nephew has the mentality of a child age 3-5 years old. Please is their any one in the Miami area (anywhere out there) that can help him. I am scared for his safety, he can not speak well and he has involuntary movements.

    • anonymous says:

      With the lord’s help somehow you and your nephew will get through this. I will pray for you. My son is in a similar situation and hope somehow he gets the help he needs.

  8. anonymous says:

    This is a blog written by a prisoner with autism:

  9. friend says:

    Prisoner with autism has a blog

  10. emilio says:

    Something needs to be done so the rights of these autistic people are respected. I am praying for this very much, because I also have an autistic son and I know how easily they can be mislead. Father God, I lift all these autistic individuals to You Lord, and I pray that their needs be met and that You comfort them and help each and everyone of them, that no weapon formed against them shall prosper, in Jesus name I pray. Amen

    • anonymous says:

      Thank you so much for the prayer. My son is autistic and could use your prayer. He is being held in jail because he has been found not competent to go to trial. He did throw rocks at several cars at a mental health hospital. He had been held there on a 3 day section and had a reaction to Haldol. DDS is looking for housing for him, but it has been over a year since laws changed to give services to people on the autism spectrum.

  11. Brenda Faulkner says:

    i have a 20 year old autistic son who is facing a year in jail i have no idea how to tell him or how to prepare him for this. my husband and i are terrified for his safety

    • anonymous says:

      I’m sorry this is happening to your son. I have been there and know how you feel, my son is 28 and still being held in jail. He has been found not competent to go to trial and can be held 1/2 the time of the crime. First he was in a hospital setting and now in a jail being held in the medical unit per request of the forensic psychologist. He has not been bothered there. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your son!

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  13. Pingback: When Autism does not speak; Incarcerated with ASD – Life Strategies

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