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Stammering in prison

Karen Bryan | 01.03.2001

By Karen Bryan PhD Reg MRCSLT

Very little research has been conducted to ascertain the incidence of any form of speech and language disorder within the prison population, but there are indications that the prevalence of such difficulties is much higher than within the general population. I would not in any way want to imply a causal link between crime and stammering (or any other communication difficulty) but hope that this article will raise awareness of the particular needs of offenders who stammer.

Studies in the USA suggest that 10-15% of the prison population have a communication disorder with stammering included in the classification used (Crowe 1991). A study of young offenders in Scotland showed that 11% of the young offenders had communication problems. Of this group at least 10% have a stammer (Hamilton 1999).

Only 5 offenders with a stammer had access to speech and language therapy in 1997

I recently joined a prison Inspectorate team and screened 10% of young offenders in one establishment for speech and language difficulties. Only a brief overview screening was possible, but 47% of the offenders were rated as having moderate speech difficulty with over half of this group reporting that they had a stammer or that they had been told they stammered (Bryan 2000).

Having a problem with speech, such as stammering, may have repercussions for the prisoner beyond the immediate effects of speech difficulty itself. Many aspects of prison life are communal so that speech difficulty may be very obvious. Bullying or taunting may occur - one young offender graphically described to me using violence to "shut-up" people who taunted him about his speech or imitated his stammer "for a laugh" - after all, he explained, the last thing he would want to do was try and talk to them and explain how he felt!

Prison officers have to deal with large numbers of offenders with a wide variety of problems. Prison staff receive only minimal training in coping with prisoners who have any form of speech, language or communication difficulty. During the screening study, mentioned above, it was evident that prison officers recognized stammering as a problem and some officers expressed sympathy for particular young offenders with severe stammers and expressed concern about how difficult it was to communicate with them.

Again taking an anecdotal example, the problems for both staff and the offender can be illustrated. I interviewed an offender in a special hospital who had a severe stammer. He presented as controlling the stammer carefully by speaking slowly and by pausing for an extended period before starting to speak. His stammer was not recognized and his style of speech caused other staff to question his motivation to engage with treatment. He also swapped words and did not finish sentences to avoid actually stammering. I asked him if this ever stopped him saying what he wanted to say. He denied this categorically. I had noted that he always avoided the sound 'M' so I asked him what he would do if he was locked in at night and there was a mouse in his room? He agreed that he hated such creatures and he would have to call staff - after a very lengthy pause he laughed and said "I'd have to say it was a cockroach!" This lead us to a much more open discussion of his difficulties and how it would be best to manage them in relation to the staff caring for him.

Treatment for offending behaviour is an essential component of detention. The aim being that when an offender is released back into society they will be able to lead a purposeful life without constituting a risk to the public. Many interventions such as anger management, drug rehabilitation and sex offender treatment programmes are wholly or partly verbally mediated - ie. they involve talking. A person with a communication disorder immediately has an added difficulty. Not only do they need to talk about complex, painful and emotionally difficult aspects of their life and their offence, but they also have an added difficulty in actually accomplishing the necessary talking. There is no data specifically available for the effect of stammering on the ability to engage in such treatments, but within the sample of young offenders I screened, avoidance of situations where communication is inevitable, such as education classes, was apparent.

Many people in prison have a long and complex history of difficulties that have lead them to end up offending and being detained. Johnson (1994) suggests that for many inmates, the period of detention is an opportunity (albeit enforced) for them to reflect on their lives and to work on their difficulties. A survey of speech and language therapists who work with offenders showed that while the number of therapists is very small, after learning difficulties, stammering is the most likely communication difficulty to lead to arrangements for speech and language provision within a penal establishment. That said, only 5 offenders with a stammer had access to speech and language therapy in 1997.

Clearly we need to know more about the incidence and the impact of speech and language difficulties, such as stammering, within the offender population. Organizations such as the BSA have an important role to play in raising awareness of the particular needs of offenders who stammer, and in lobbying the Prison Service to ensure that the communication needs of offenders who stammer are met.

Karen Bryan PhD Reg MRCSLT is Professor of Clinical Practice at the University of Surrey.

Bryan, K (2000) Speech and Language Abilities in young Offenders. Report to Her Majesty's Prison Inspectorate.
Crowe, T A (1991) Speech and hearing status of prisoners. Bulletin of the College of Speech and Language Therapists, 466, 2-4.
Hamilton, J (1999) Speech and Language Communication Therapy: A Perspective from HMYOI Polmont. Internal Report: Forth valley Primary Care NHS Trust.
Johnson, S (1997) A review of Communication Therapy with Male Young Offenders. (Internal Report: Scottish Prison Service).

From the Spring 2001 edition of Speaking Out