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ADHD and the Prison System

by Sally Willbanks
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ADHD and the Prison System

Research shows that 24% of adults in the UK prison system have ADHD or ADHD symptoms, while two thirds of young offenders in the US, and half of the adults in the US prison system have ADHD or symptoms.  This is staggering when you consider that only 4.4% of the general adult population has ADHD. 


ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity, emotional dysregulation, and behavioral inhibition can lead to poor decision making, causing sufferers to commit violations of the law.  ODD, or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, which is often comorbid with ADHD, can lead to conflicts with other adults, particularly those in an authority position.  ADHDers also have higher rates of car violations and accidents due to their impulsivity, attention problems and executive function issues.  Untreated ADHD can also lead to increased risk of substance abuse, which then can lead to more arrests for illegal substances, as well as more poor decision-making.


Once arrested, an offender with ADHD has a much more difficult time navigating the arrest, court system, probation and actual incarceration.  An ADHDer, once released, is also more likely to recommit a crime and be reincarcerated.  Research shows that 37% of men and 15% of women with ADHD will reoffend, as opposed to 9% and 2% respectively of non- ADHD offenders.  These numbers cannot be ignored.


Imagine if these prison inmates with ADHD were diagnosed and treated as children and young adults, before they committed crimes and entered the prison system?  What if those who are incarcerated with ADHD were treated with adequate supports and medical help so that their experience in prison led to rehabilitation rather than reoffence?  Shouldn’t there be a system for ADHDers who are actually finding treatment within prison to be able to continue the same treatment once released and on probation?  There is so much that needs to change.  The financial burden on society alone makes change worthy, let alone the individual cost of the actual lives wasted within the system.  There are thousands of ADHDer inmates right now who are untreated and left to struggle their way through incarceration.  What if they had been given the right supports and medication when younger?  They likely wouldn’t be in prison now, and instead would be valuable, productive and happy members of society.  It is essential that children with ADHD are identified and given the help that they need.  It is also essential that the inmates showing symptoms of ADHD go through a diagnostic process so they can be treated and rehabilitated.  This would put an end to much of the aggression and violence within the prison population, as well as lead to less recidivism. 


We need to be more understanding of ADHD and those with the condition.  This is the first step that we can all take to helping this vulnerable community.

by Sally Willbanks


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