Persons with intellectual disabilities and the execution of prison sentences: Some characteristics of the population and challenges in providing treatment


People with different forms and severity of a disability, like all other members of society, may violate legal norms and find themselves facing the execution of a prison sentence. Studies investigating the treatment of persons with disabilities during criminal proceedings and imprisonment have observed numerous inequalities to which they are exposed, including an improper environment or a lack of access to proper treatment and rehabilitation.

The treatment of persons with disabilities suspected or accused of committing an offence depends on several factors. Prevailing social attitudes towards criminals with disabilities, but also people with disabilities in general, are of considerable influence. However, the organization of the criminal justice system, social services and other appropriate providers of help, support and protection services stands out as the most influential. The functionality of the mentioned systems, in interaction with adequate legislation in mental health, is a prerequisite for appropriate social reaction. Consequently, how social and other relevant services operate can influence how offenders are treated in the criminal justice system.

The management of prisons in which convicted persons with disabilities serve their sentences implies the fulfilment of several prerequisites. The literature mentions benefits that include not only the adaptation of the environment and the content of activities, but also the entire infrastructure of facilities that provide assistance, support and protection services. In addition, necessary prerequisites include continuity in maintaining social contacts, primarily contacts with the convict’s family, and adherence to the principle of continuity of rehabilitation treatment and engaging in preferred recreational and leisure activities.

About screening for neurodevelopmental disorders and treatment of convicted persons with various forms of disability

People with various types of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities and borderline intellectual functioning, do not receive the necessary professional support and treatment services in prison. The prison environment is particularly difficult for people with disabilities to function. Overall, this occurs due to the structural, procedural and communicative barriers inherent in the prison environment, which exclude and put this group of convicts in a disadvantageous position.

Convicted persons with learning disabilities or lower literacy levels often lack sufficiently developed verbal and adaptive skills or reading and writing skills. Reading and writing skills are required for participation in treatment, therapy or training in prison and are necessary for successful social reintegration after release.

On the other hand, some services are unavailable to convicts with the most severe degree of hearing impairment, that is, deaf convicts, regardless of the fact that they have a guaranteed right based on permanent disability. In particular, they are denied a sign language interpreter at the reception department and access to educational activities. They also encounter barriers to employment. In many cases, deaf convicts point out that the denial of communication and misunderstanding of what is happening around them lead to feelings of confusion and isolation, but also the inability to follow the prison regime in the same way as other convicts. According to the prisoners themselves, this position directly affects their mental health and relationship with other prisoners and prison staff.

Following the effects of the screening program on below-average or borderline intelligence in convicted persons in the reception of three prisons in England, many beneficial changes were noticed. Namely, the administrations of these prisons implemented several adjustments on their initiative, despite not receiving the requisite funding from the relevant Ministry of Justice. Inmates were specifically offered a variety of in-prison learning and training programs as well as preparation for release, including referrals to relevant service providers and community services, after being evaluated for below-average intellectual functioning or learning issues. To ensure continuity in treatment after prison release, these convicts were also referred to the existing rehabilitation, education, and psychiatric prison programs, which began to cooperate with similar services outside the prison, confirming the importance of evidence-based practices.

Prison release and social reintegration of convicted persons with disabilities

After release from prison, ex-convicts with below-average intellectual functioning are often without proper employment and with limited social contacts. In addition, these convicts receive insufficient support in the community, and repeated informational interviews with the police are frequent. Concerning risk assessment, convicts with below-average intellectual functioning are more likely to be rated as the medium risk for reoffending after prison release than convicts from the general population.

According to ex-convicts with below-average intellectual functioning, there is a lack of mutual respect between them, as users of services on the one hand, and staff from social welfare, parole or health care services, as service providers, on the other. All this complicates the position of convicted persons in the post-penal period.

It is important to note that vocational rehabilitation has a significant impact on the employment of convicted persons with disabilities after prison release and that there is a consistent and positive relationship between the use of any rehabilitation service and finding a job.

The results of some research on the recidivism of prisoners with disabilities

Over 80% of offenders with intellectual functioning below average have already served a sentence, and 45% of them returned to prison within two years of being released, compared to only 20% of offenders from the general population. Recidivism in this population is 41%, according to data from another study.

Research has also revealed a distinctive pattern of recidivism. Given their prior experiences and the limited professional and job-related training they got in prison, convicts with below-average intellectual functioning or other developmental disabilities are a risk category for recidivism.

Other authors, on the other hand, examined what recidivism in this population of convicts depends on. In the research, they pointed to the previous history of committing criminal offences, more precisely the number of previous offences, committing crimes against property and crimes related to drugs, followed by the violation of parole and history of substance abuse as significant factors of recidivism. While unemployment and unstable or inadequate housing have also been associated with recidivism, a history of psychiatric conditions or disorders has a considerable influence as well.


All prison populations, including those with all types and degrees of disabilities, need to be reintegrated into society and have recidivism prevented through training programs and employment support. These prisoners are a diverse group. Their successful social reintegration poses a challenge to support services provided by professionals as well as to the entire prison system. Therefore, the success of prison sentences would depend on the early identification of those who have learning difficulties or any other sort of developmental issue or adult-onset disability.

In order to identify developmental disorders and provide appropriate support in the prison environment, it is also important to implement training programs, increase employee capacity, and sensitize staff, particularly treatment officers and members of security services. Programs for social and adaptive skills based on the theories of disability studies and practice may be essential for convicted individuals with below-average intellectual functioning to successfully adjust to life in prison and actively participate in prison activities.

Milena Milićević and Ljeposava Ilijić


Nonte: The blog text is partially taken from the article Milićević, M. & Ilijić Lj. (2022). Persons with Intellectual Disabilities and Violations of Legal Norms – Some Characteristics of the Population and Challenges in the Execution of Prison Sentences [in Serbian]. Zbornik Instituta za kriminološka i sociološka istraživanja, 41(1), 41-53.