Prisoners with learning disabilities in Australian study had significantly worse health outcomes than their non-disabled peers


Prisoners have general health needs similar to those found in the general population, although there is a higher incidence of substance misuse and mental health problems as well as a range of health issues which are consequences of imprisonment.

In 2007, a Prison Reform trust paper ‘No One Knows‘ suggested that between 20 and 30% of offenders in UK prisons had learning difficulties or learning disabilities that interfered with their ability to cope within the criminal justice system. These additional issues can make it more difficult to recognise and diagnose medical conditions.

The researchers in this Australian study set out to identify demographic, health and health-related characteristics of adult prisoners who screened positive for learning disabilities.


What they did was to collect cross-sectional data through administering a structured questionnaire in seven prisons between 2008 and 2010. They used the questionnaire is adult prisoners who had been released from custody within 6 weeks.

The presence of learning disability was established though a pragmatic screening approach.

Those participants who scored less than 85 on the Hayes Ability Screening Index and either:

  • reported having attended a special school


  • reported having been diagnosed with a learning disability

were considered by the researchers to have screened positive for learning disabilities.

The researchers were then able to make comparisons of the characteristics of participants who screened positive and those who screened negative for learning disabilities.

They did this using uni-variable and multi-variable logistic regression techniques.


What they found was that those screening positive for learning disabilities was associated with younger age, identifying as Indigenous Australian and having lower educational achievement.

Those prisoners who screened positive for learning disability were also more likely to have been diagnosed with medical conditions such as heart disease and hearing problems. health problem shutterstock

They were also less likely to have received preventive care interventions such as testing for hepatitis A infection and immunisation for tuberculosis.

They were also more likely to be obese.


The authors conclude that those adult prisoners who screened positive for learning disabilities in their study had significantly worse health outcomes than their non-disabled peers, leading them to describe this group as ‘profoundly disadvantaged.’

They recommend work to improve understanding of the physical health characteristics of prisoners with learning disabilities prior to release to inform transitional planning of health services.


Physical health outcomes in prisoners with intellectual disability: a cross-sectional study, Dias S et al., in Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 57, 12, 1191-1196

No One Knows, Prison Reform trust, 2007

Share on Facebook Tweet this on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+
Mark as read
Create a personal elf note about this blog
Profile photo of John Northfield

John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

More posts

Follow me here –