Deaf women in prison and should they be there?

Mandy Reid from deafscotland reflects on the support that is available for deaf women in prison.

In May 2008, the Scottish Council on Deafness (SCoD) (deafscotland is the trading name on SCoD) published a research report, “Making the Case for Specialist Mental Health Services for Deaf People in Scotland: with recommendations for action.” This report laid out the reasons why Public Petition PE808 was lodged with the Scottish Parliament and why the issues raised in January 2005 were still the same, if not more serious in 2008. The report did not cover forensic mental health; neither did it mention anything about the numbers of deaf people with mental health problems who are part by the Criminal Justice system – supported by Criminal Justice Social Work Teams or in the prison system.

In January 2009, the Policy and Research Officer sent FOI requests to all 32 local authorities asking for information on the numbers of deaf men and women being supported in the criminal justice sector and also the Scottish Prison Services asking how many male/female prisoners there were and how many had mental health issues. The results were not surprising as the majority of Councils replied that they did not keep on file whether or not people in the criminal justice sector were deaf, the level of their deafness and whether or not they had language/communication support needs. Only two councils recorded these details and reported they each had one woman in their system; Deaf and supported by mainstream forensic services with the aid of BSL/English Interpreters.

The response from the Scottish Prison Service was “This information is not held centrally and would involve our health care staff in every prison having to check the medical records of some 8,000 prisoners. I can tell you, however, that at the time of writing, 11 prisoners are recorded as having a hearing impairment. One of these is female.”

In July, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland published a report: A review of the records of nine women who received mental health care in prison custody in Scotland between 2017 and early 2020 –

The report states: “The Mental Welfare Commission’s report highlights the lack of available beds in specific units in Scotland’s mental health facilities – a concern that remains as relevant now as it did at the time of the CPT report. The report also raises critical questions about missed opportunities with early intervention, pathways from prison to the community, and the revolving door of prison.”

We know that sensory deprivation is a form of torture yet society accepts the grinding impact on those affected by deafness on a daily basis. We suspect that Deaf female prisoners face a lack of appropriate linguistic support where they are held as well as a lack of specialist mental health support that is linguistically appropriate should any female prisoners who are Deaf or Deafblind BSL users or Deafened.

Over the last few years, the Scottish Prison Service has introduce deaf awareness training and BSL tuition into Scottish prisons, but unless there is a concerted effort, deaf people in jail will face greater barriers than they do generally in their daily life and those with mental health issues will suffer greater torture than their hearing peers.

Several prison governors have been trying to bring the lack of support for women in prison, who have severe and enduring mental health issues either before they are sentenced or develop them after entering the justice system, to the attention of Scottish Government. They realised that the prison system in Scotland cannot provide the support these women need with the resources provided by government. There has also been a recognition that many women who are imprisoned should not be and if men are brought to court on similar charges, these men are not jailed.

Much more needs to be done to keep women out of prison. In 2018, The Howard League reported that on International Women’s Day there were almost 400 women in prison in Scotland. The message they were trying to get across at the time which remains an important message today is

“We should not lose sight that social justice is not only about imprisoning better, but imprisoning less.”

If Scotland is to take a person-centred, rights-based approach to justice, it needs to take a look at what it jails women for and so many more women get jailed for crimes when committed by men result in a fine or community payback. The Scottish Government also needs to find ways of linking support services for women experiencing poverty and violence against them to restorative justice in the community; to community justice services; and to GIRFEC, because when women are involved in the justice system, their children are involved in the system too.