The plight of older prisoners

Over-60s are the fastest growing group of prisoners. But their mental, social and physical well-being can suffer, even after release, as the needs of younger inmates dominate the system, writes Terry Philpot

Ronnie Biggs’s transformation from the likely lad of prison escapees, sunning himself on a Brazilian beach, to a very ill 71-year-old, severely disabled through stroke, has been one periodically charted by the media since his voluntary return to the UK and imprisonment five years ago. But it is only the most colourful or notorious of older criminals who receive public attention.

Yet those older than 60 are the fastest growing group of prisoners. In 2004 there were more than 1,528 of them in prisons in England and Wales, up 185 per cent on 10 years ago. The current prison population is 77,004. Harsher sentencing lies behind this, and particularly so for sex offenders (who make up 57 per cent of the over-60s) and drug traffickers (10 per cent).

Some will die in jail and those who leave will face even greater problems than most prisoners. Indeed, Elaine Crawley, research fellow in criminology at Keele University, found them “bewildered and frustrated” by the resettlement process. As their release date drew nearer they had little idea what they were going to do or what, if anything, had been provided for them.(1)

Some prisoners – often sex offenders – go to prison for the first time in their forties or fifties for crimes committed decades earlier, while a serious offender in his late twenties could receive a sentence that would see them grow old behind bars. Other older prisoners are petty offenders and professional criminals, who receive a series of jail sentences throughout adulthood.

The Department of Health found that 85 per cent of those over 60 had one or more major illness noted in their medical records and 83 per cent reported at least one chronic illness or disability. The most common illnesses were psychiatric, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal and respiratory. More than half of all older prisoners suffer from a mental disorder, most commonly depression which often emerges as a result of imprisonment.

On prisoners with mental illness, Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, says: “The coercive element in prisons doesn’t assist them at all and they need to be looked after in a different kind of environment. What’s the value of locking up someone who is mentally ill or who has a learning disability?”

Older prisoners can also face losing their “protector” role within the family as well as contact with their family. If they were living in a local authority property, the council will sometimes repossess their homes and destroy personal papers and photographs.

One 70-year-old man, who had lived all his 40 years of marriage in the same place, was told that there had been “nothing of value” when this happened to him.

The needs of younger prisoners dominate the system. But Dobson says: “In prisons with a high proportion of young males, there’s an awful lot of testosterone about and it needs to be channelled. So you get some older prisoners feeling intimidated – real or not – and there’s lots of noise and a lack of other prisoners who have the same kind of sensibilities.” In fact, in 2004, Anne Owers, chief inspector of prisons, found that 30 per cent of these prisoners did not feel safe.(2)

There are some bright spots of good practice. Gartree Prison, through Age Concern, has set up an advocacy and support service. Nacro and Age Concern have produced a training and resource pack for prison staff for the National Offender Management Service. This has background information and practical advice on how to improve prisoners’ mental, social and physical well-being.

Norwich Prison has the only special wing for older male prisoners (older women have no separate facilities), now that Portsmouth’s Kingston Prison has reverted to an ordinary jail. In London, Kingston-upon-Thames’s adult services department works with Latchmere House, a local pre-release prison, where low-risk prisoners (most of them older), work in a children’s community home after a risk assessment, doing odd jobs, painting or carpentry for four to six months. In seven years only one prisoner has had to be removed. Other than that there are vulnerable prisoners’ units, where older prisoners are locked up with offenders segregated for their own safety.

Older women prisoners face a triple disadvantage: they have all the problems that confront older prisoners; they are a minority within a minority (although from 1995 to 2003, the numbers over 50 went up by 98 per cent); and, like many younger women prisoners, they will also have dependents. Many have also been abused and many are a danger to themselves.

Azrini Wahidin, reader in criminology and criminal justice at the centre for criminal justice policy and research at the University of Central England in Birmingham, says: “Older women’s specific needs are not catered for. This is apparent in the area of education and training, broadly thought of as rehabilitation. This raises the question of who perceives a woman in later life as too old for education and why, and what does this say about the prison’s statement of purpose and the role of rehabilitation for women in later life?”

Women, she says, have spent their lives coping with responsibilities for others and are seen as competent and reliable carers and partners, while prison creates in them a sense of helplessness. One told her: “You just feel that you are bound and gagged from head to toe and there is no escaping that situation. It’s not just taking you out of society to say you’ve done this thing and you’ve got to be punished – the punishment just continues.”

Another dimension to the issues faced by older prisoners is that Victorian local prisons almost defy the challenge to make them disability-accessible, although the Prison Service has complied voluntarily with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. New prisons have cells with wheelchair access but research shows that only 14 per cent of prisoners have ground-floor cells.

Owers’ 2004 report found some older prisoners paying fellow inmates in chocolate and cigarettes to push their wheelchairs when staff wouldn’t do it “because they had not been trained”. One blind 70-year-old wheelchair user had been taken for a shower only once a month. The report recommended that young prisoners be trained as carers.

The report found, too, that some older prisoners regarded jail as home and wanted to spend their last days there. In one prison when older inmates were asked to whom they wished to talk, the undertaker was top of the list.

Older prisoners are also disadvantaged on pension rights. Occupational pensions are paid into an account, whereas the state pension (which is most likely to be the only form of superannuation) is stopped.

And when it comes to release, probation officers tend to focus on resettlement and risk assessments for possible parole rather than catering for prisoners’ social care needs.

Although the Home Office is planning no separate national strategy for older prisoners, the Department of Health plans to develop a health policy for them, and responsibility for assessing prisoners’ health has switched from the prison service to primary care trusts. Meanwhile the DH change agent team is working to raise awareness about the treatment of older and disabled prisoners.

But what is there to be aware of? There are no votes in helping prisoners and it’s doubtful that the situation of older prisoners is even at the bottom of any list for penal reform buried somewhere in the Home Office.

(1) E Crawley, “Release and resettlement: The perspectives of older prisoners”, Criminal Justice Matters, No 56, summer 2004
(2) Chief Inspector of Prisons, No Problems, Old and Quiet: Older Prisoners in England and Wales, The Stationery Office, 2004

Further information
Prison Reform Trust

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