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  • Writer's pictureMatt Hancock

Dyslexia, ADHD … we must do more

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock calls for action to help neurodivergent prisoners

At last, there’s a growing body of evidence shining a light on the links between neurodivergence and imprisonment within our criminal justice system – something that has unforgivably been swept under the carpet for far too long.


The Centre for Social Justice reveals a concerning reality, having found that half of prisoners are believed to have dyslexia. On top of this, a 2022 report by the ADHD Foundation revealed that one in four prisoners grapple with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – that’s five to ten times higher than the rate in the general population. These shocking statistics paint a stark picture of the urgent need for effective support systems for those with neurodivergent conditions within prisons.


80 per cent of children cautioned or sentenced within the Youth Justice System have special educational needs.

Unsurprisingly, the challenges extend beyond adult prisons to the Youth Justice System (YJS) too. I was saddened to learn that 80 per cent of children cautioned or sentenced within the YJS have special educational needs. Children with neuro-disabilities face even higher rates of entering custody, longer sentences, and are associated with more violent crimes.


This truly alarming statistic demonstrates the critical need to understand how cases involving neurodivergent children and adults can be most effectively and efficiently handled at every stage of the criminal justice process.


Recognising these pressing needs, I founded the Accessible Learning Foundation (ALF), whose primary focus includes assisting neurodivergent prisoners. Through conversations with former inmates and professionals, it became evident that significant policy changes and on-the-ground support are essential. One notable step forward has been the introduction of screening tests for all new prisoners, accompanied by thousands of secondary in-depth screeners annually – a commendable effort by the Ministry of Justice to address this issue.


The recent appointment of Neurodiversity Support Managers in each prison signals a positive shift in policy. However, it is crucial that these managers not only exist but also effectively provide tangible, one-on-one support to neurodivergent prisoners. While offering guidance to prison staff is important, tailored support for those with neurodivergent conditions is vital for their educational and rehabilitative success.


To ensure the effectiveness of these support systems and policies, it is imperative to measure their impact. Having met with Justice Secretary Alex Chalk last month, I’m pleased that we are working collaboratively, making the case for increased recognition and accountability within the prison system. Together, we’re working to highlight the need for better educational support for both neurodivergent and non-neurodivergent prisoners. Evaluating the effectiveness of existing support systems will lead the way for necessary improvements.


This month, I will chair a panel at The Dyslexia Show in Birmingham. As part of the discussion, I will share ALF’s goal: to provide effective support for neurodivergent prisoners, which will help break the cycle of reoffending. By reducing barriers to education and rehabilitation, we aim to empower those leaving prison to contribute meaningfully to society, creating a more inclusive and equitable future for all.


While progress has certainly been made in acknowledging and addressing the needs of those with neurodivergent conditions within the criminal justice system, there’s a lot of work still to be done. By working collaboratively, implementing effective policies, and continuously assessing and improving support systems, we can create lasting positive change, reduce reoffending rates, and empower neurodivergent individuals to thrive beyond their sentences.


Matt Hancock is the Conservative MP for West Suffolk, and founder of the Accessible Learning Foundation. He was Health Secretary from 2018 to 2021.

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