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A hospital’s prisoner
Sensemaker audio

A hospital’s prisoner

A hospital’s prisoner

Tony Hickmott has autism and learning difficulties. For more than 20 years he’s been held in a specialist hospital, hours away from his family. His local council blame a lack of other options – how can this be justified?

Claudia williams, narrating:

Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, how people with learning disabilities and autism are being held in specialist hospitals for decades. 


“A man with autism and learning difficulties has been held in a secure unit for more than 21 years because of lack of support in the community. A senior judge has criticised the authorities for outrageous delays in handling the case…”

BBC News

In 2001, Tony Hickmott was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

He was in his early 20s and like many young people who have autism and learning disabilities he was struggling to cope as he became an adult.  

Tony Hickmott was put in an Assessment and Treatment Unit or, ATU, 100 miles away from his parents’ home in Brighton. An ATU is specifically designed to help people in crisis. 

They’re meant to be a short-term solution. 

And Tony Hickmott’s parents were told he would be there for nine months only.

“Nine months… he’d be away for nine months until they found him a suitable place in the Brighton area. That’s what we was told. It was far from the truth. One week runs into a month then another month runs into a year…”

Roy Hickmott speaking to the BBC

“Then that year went, then another year went…”

Pam Hickmott speaking to the BBC

Fast forward to 2021.

“He’s lived there longer now than he’s lived at home… you can’t take that trauma away.”

Pam Hickmott speaking to the BBC

Tony Hickmott is still there, despite being declared fit for discharge eight years ago. 

“I mean we’d travel back sometimes, we’d pull in and we’d both pull in and cry. I mean I come in and I’ve got Pam. She comes in and she’s got me. He’s got nobody.”

Roy Hickmott speaking to the BBC

So, how can we explain – and justify – people with autism and learning disabilities being held – really, detained – in specialist hospitals for decades, sometimes miles away from their families?


This case has sent shockwaves and provoked outrage. 

And a BBC investigation found that Tony Hickmott is not the only one who has been through this.

“… and his case is by no means an exception. The latest figures show more than 2,000 patients with learning difficulties or autism in similar situations across England… the BBC has learned that more than one hundred of them have been held in secure settings for at least 20 years.”

BBC News

100 people with autism and learning disabilities in England have been held in specialist hospitals for at least 20 years. 

What’s more, another 2,000 people with these conditions are currently being detained in specialist secure units across England.

And the situation is getting worse.

Between 2015 and 2020, the numbers have doubled – despite the government’s “homes not hospitals” pledge that sought to cut the numbers of people who are hospitalised needlessly for prolonged periods of time.

The pledge was made after BBC Panorama exposed a culture of neglect and abuse at the Winterbourne View private hospital near Bristol.  Its investigation led to multiple arrests and some care workers were jailed. 

But the pledge hasn’t been met.

“So, three years on from the scandal of the mistreatment of patients at the Winterbourne View care home, what has happened? It’s turned out that a government pledge to move patients with learning difficulties out of such hospitals and into the community by this summer has been broken.”

Channel 4 News

The system failed. More people continued to be sent into in-patient units than taken out of them.

And behind every number, is a vulnerable person – and a family.

Like Tony Hickmott, 17-year old Ryan Addison, was detained under the Mental Health Act and was held in a facility normally used to treat those who have committed serious crimes because of severe mental illness. 

He was there for 15 years.

And Ryan Addison’s parents say they were prevented from contacting him — their phone numbers were deliberately blocked.  

So, for people like Tony Hickmott and Ryan Addison, what happens next? 


A court order had prevented media outlets from reporting on Tony Hickmott’s case… but this week a senior judge lifted the anonymity order, ruling that it was in the public interest to be told about him. 

The judge partly blamed a “lack of resources” as the reason for Tony Hickmott’s detention. 

Here’s Margaret Flynn, author of the Serious Case Review following the Winterbourne View abuse scandal.

“Ultimately, these settings should not exist. These people are not criminals, they haven’t got sentences through the criminal justice process, they are stuck in services just as people used to be stuck in the long-stay institutions…”

Margaret Flynn, author of the Serious Case Review, Winterbourne View abuse scandal

Brighton and Hove council have said they’re working with the NHS and Tony Hickmott’s parents to find alternative options. For Tony Hickmott’s parents though, the key issue is funding. 

The Department for Health and Social Care says that its national strategy is to make life, quote, “fundamentally better for autistic people, their families and carers” and that it was providing an extra £90 million of funding this financial year. 

But is this just a funding issue?  Or does it reveal something fundamental about our social care system? People like Tony Hickmott have a right to know. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Nimo Omer and Imy Harper.