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Autistics in prison

Published: April 22, 2018
Last updated on November 18, 2023

How would an autistic person survive in prison? An immediate reaction some people will have to this question is, “Oh autistics will do just fine, because prison is very routine.” But not surprisingly, prison is far from conducive to autistic people.


An autistic young man
with an IQ of sixty-nine,
was waiting outside the library
in the early morning time

A policeman became suspicious
Did he have an evil plan brewing?
He suspected the intent to be malicious
and felt inclined to ask, “What are you doing?”

Being literally-minded, the young man said,
Waitin’ for it to open” (referring to the library)
The young man thought that would be that,
but the officer did not believe young Neli

No way a young black man in a hoodie
was going to a library early morning—for a book?
And so the officer restrained poor Neli
for an answer he considered gobbledygook

Seven years later Neli is still behind locked doors,
All that he wanted was to rent a simple book
But now that he is in jail, he barely sees the outdoors
Such a big toll his Autism Spectrum Disorder took

The last meltdown that landed him in jail
was because they took him off his medication
He tried to keep his cool, but boy did he fail
And so he tried to commit suicide in desperation

He assaulted a correctional officer once more
As such, Neli may never walk out of that prison door

An illustrated portrait of Reginald “Neli” Latson.

Meanwhile, he is being punished in the most severe manner
the criminal justice system can concoct. He has spent most of the
last year in solitary confinement and has lost almost 50 pounds
from an already trim frame.

In effect Neli spends 24 hours a day locked in a segregation cell
with minimal human contact for the ‘crime’ of being autistic.

An illustrated portrait of Reginald “Neli” Latson.

Reginald “Neli” Latson’s journey through Virginia’s criminal justice system began in 2010, when he assaulted and badly injured a police officer who had demanded to know why Latson was sitting outside the public library.[1]Stafford County woman confronts issues of race, autism after son’s arrest | Washington Post

  • Answer: Waiting for it to open.
  • Hint: He was a young black man wearing a hoodie.

That launched a self-defeating, seemingly perpetual cycle of imprisonment, release to a group home, and re-incarceration after police were summoned to the home to deal with an agitated Latson.

Next month, he is to stand trial on the most ridiculous charge of all: that he assaulted a correctional officer when, after being taken off his medications and threatening suicide, he was being transferred from a solitary confinement cell to a “crisis cell” with no mattress and with a hole in the floor for a toilet.[2]Ruth Marcus: In Virginia, a cruel and unusual punishment for autism

This is the sort of situation that an autistic young man simply cannot comprehend—he had done nothing wrong and yet the officer was restraining him—and the actions of the officer seemed threatening to Neli because he does not understand social roles the way others do.

Appeals were made to the Governor of Virginia to intervene in this case, and finally, on April 7, 2018 it was announced that Neli was released from prison.[3]Neli Latson is — finally — free. It only took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about race and disability (Vargas, 2021) | Washington Post

Embrace Autism | Autistics in prison | main qimg 4fb1a70b031f916d70c5c1c30e22c167
Feltham Young Offenders Institution (Rex)

The issue

  • Autistic people are more vulnerable to being bullied, manipulated, and sexually abused.[4]Supporting Prisoners Who Have Autism | Mental Health Today
  • In addition, they will have difficulty interpreting facial expressions and body language, which can cause them a number of problems. Non-literal language can make communication confusing.
  • Then there is the problem with prison being too noisy—doors opening and closing, prisoners shouting and all sounds being magnified by the closed environment causing reverberation of sound.
  • Another issue is that autistic people tend to like a certain level of predictability. While prison does enforce a certain routine onto its inmates, having your room ransacked during an unannounced prison room search can cause significant distress.[5]Supporting Prisoners Who Have Autism | Mental Health Today
  • Although autistics make up about 1–2.5% of the population, a number of studies show the percentage of autistic prisoners at Feltham in London to be around 4.5%.[6]Award-winning Accreditation programme in the prison service | National Autistic Society
Autism-friendly prison
  • In 2015, the Feltham Young Offenders Institution in the UK was awarded Autism Accreditation,[7]Feltham becomes first prison to be awarded autism accreditation | Learning Disability Today and therefore deemed to be “autism-friendly”.
  • Also in 2015, Feltham Young Offenders Institution in the UK was known as Britain’s most notorious and violent prison, making headlines for its organised ‘fight club’ brawls.
Embrace Autism | Autistics in prison | main qimg 0b8d068c0b4589f09e81f71cb3e7e980
Yes, that sounds very autism-friendly to me (sarcasm)

While these efforts in a greater awareness of autism and proper treatment within the criminal justice system are admirable, we obviously have a long way to go still.


This article
was written by:

Dr. Natalie Engelbrecht ND RP is a dually licensed naturopathic doctor and registered psychotherapist, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.

She was diagnosed at 46, and her autism plays a significant role in who she is as a doctor, and how she interacts with and cares for her patients and clients.

Want to know more about her? Read her About me page.


Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.


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