The aging prison population


With so much focus being placed on young offenders and the poverty traps that keep them locked in a cycle of crime, little attention has been given to an ever increasing section of the national prison population. In England and Wales, male offenders aged 50 or above are the fastest growing group in prison, rising by 74% in the past decade to close to 10,000 (that’s 11% of the total prison population), while since 1990 the over-60s population has increasing eight-fold.

A succession of governments, wanting to appear ‘tough on crime’, have led to an increased pressure on the judicial system to hand out an increasing number of longer-term sentences. A rapidly aging long-term prison population now suffers from an accelerated aging process due to a combination of the health risks associated with criminal lifestyles and the psychological strains of prison life, which has led to more and more pressure being placed on correctional services that are now unable to cope with the changing nature of prison care for many inmates.

Among these unfamiliar healthcare challenges, dementia looms large. The lack of staff training and the difficulty in recognising early-warning signs in the regimented routine of prison life means that diagnosis is near impossible until the symptoms become severe. Moreover, with staff and management more likely to concentrate on the volatile younger populations there simply isn’t the resources to devote much attention to an “old and quiet” sub-section, posing little threat to security.

To combat this, several prisons in England had enlisted support from Recoop (a charity promoting the care of older offenders) to run weekly well-being clubs, an adapted version of the memory café initiative run in the community by the Alzheimer’s Society. Yet despite this drive most prisons it seems are acting as silos. In 2004 a report produced by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons recommended the development of a national strategy for older offenders, but at a time of service level cuts and deteriorating levels of staffing and morale prisons appear less and less able to prepare for a growing problem.

While the most obvious solution would be an overhaul of the judicial sentencing procedure, a more immediate solution is to tackle this issue head on before it become too great to deal with and leading to more people suffer needlessly. As a party we need a Federal policy for the provision of elderly prisoner care. It was Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons” – let’s remember prisoners are part of our society too.

* Ian Thomas is the pseudonym for a party member. His identity is known to the Lib Dem Voice editorial team.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • nigel hunter 18th Jul '16 - 11:20am

    What will happen when they leave prison? Are the facilities , ie housing considered?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Jul '16 - 4:40pm

    Alex, a solution would be to maybe not send people to prison for non violent offences and spend more on prison for the violent !

    We need to ask ourselves if the older prison population at any given moment , are those in there for years , who obviously should only be those who deserve to be there , or people who happen to be older , having committed offenses better dealt with in other ways.

    There is a lot to be said for very long sentences for very wrong deeds.

    There is little to be said for short sentences for short term waste of money .

    Yet we must recognise we must know who is in for what .

  • Thank you for a very thoughtful article, Alex. You have outlined what I regard as a great scandal. Your comment, “there simply isn’t the resources to devote much attention to an “old and quiet” sub-section, posing little threat to security.” lifts the lid on the inadequacy of resources for the elderly – possibly suffering from dementia – who are no longer any danger to anybody.

    It has to be put into the context of the starvation of local authorities of funds to tackle the needs of the wider ageing population. As a former Cabinet member with responsibility for Social Work, I can confirm we are sitting on the edge of a precipice….. and at the same time appear willing to spend £ 179 billion on replacing Trident.

    PS Watch this space for the next big privatised care home chain to go down financially just as Southern Cross did a few years ago.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Oct '16 - 10:27am

    Thank you for a very thoughtful article, Alex.
    David Raw: “… who are no longer any danger to anybody.”
    They need to be assessed individually, for the security of the public.
    I worked in the Life Sentence Review Section of Prison Service HQ for two years.
    We were aware of the facilities of prisons and had a unit allocating life sentence prisoners to prisons.
    “Kingston became the only prison in England and Wales to have a unit exclusively for elderly male prisoners serving life sentences”. A colleague of mine visited it and reported on the widespread hand-rails, etcetera, for the disabled and elderly prisoners.
    There was, and presumably still is, a power of recall to closed conditions of lifers in the community who had re-offended or posed a risk. Recall required the authority of Ministers and was/is subject to a prompt right of appeal to the Parole Board.
    What surprised even experienced staff was a small number of lifers who needed to be recalled for a lifer offence different from the offence of which he/she had been convicted. For instance a young man who had been convicted of murder being charged in old age with a sexual offence involving children. We would always ask the police to initiate prosecution and discouraged any requests from them to use recall as an alternative to prosecution.

  • Richard Underhill 12th Oct '16 - 9:23am

    As MPs think about Helen’ Law they should be aware that victims’ families can be extreme upset and have different methods of coping with their distress over different periods of time. Each case should therefore be treated individually.
    Refusing parole would possibly be ineffective where the convict has a whole life tariff. Some life sentence prisoners have repeatedly raised false hopes, causing increased distress. There is plenty of information in the public domain, including answers to PMQs.

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