Our ageing prison population

Work with offenders investigates our ageing prison population

The House of Commons Justice Committee is currently conducting an enquiry into our ageing prison population, so we thought it was timely to take a closer look at how our prison population has changed over recent years.

The latest figures are quite startling:

  • One in six (17%) of the prison population are now aged 50 or over, a total of 13,890 people as of 30 June 2019. 5,157 of these prisoners were in their 60s and a further 1,813 were aged 70 or older.
  • With prison sentences getting longer, people are growing old behind bars, prisoners age 60 and over are the fastest growing age group in the prison estate; there are now more than three times the number there were 15 years ago.
  • One reason for this increasing population of older prisoners is that, over recent years, a significant number of people have been sentenced to prison for the first time for a long sentence, often for sexual or violent crimes of a historic nature, which had been committed many years earlier. Many cases of historic sex abuse have only been fully investigated in recent years.
  • Indeed, 45% of men in prison aged over 50 have been convicted of sex offences. This is particularly true for very old prisoners. On 31 December 2016, there were 234 people in prison who are aged 80 or over (14 of these were in their 90s and one was over a hundred years old). 87% of these elderly prisoners were in custody for sexual offences.

There are, predictably, a number of healthcare consequences associated with an ageing prison population. Many prisoners experienced chronic health problems prior to or during imprisonment as a result of poverty, poor diet, inadequate access to healthcare, drug and/or alcohol dependency and smoking. Research has shown that the psychological strains of prison life can further accelerate the ageing process.

In a thematic inspection report in 2018, prison inspectors confirmed that many of our older prisons are ill-equipped for prisoners in wheelchairs, or with mobility problems. They found that some prisoners struggled to wash and look after themselves and others who fall cannot get help during the night. The inspectors did find some examples of good practice but overall provision was inconsistent and the inspectors found that both the prison service and local authorities are failing to plan for the future needs of a growing population of elderly, ill and frail prisoners.

The same report highlighted concern about the number of prisoners with dementia. Dementia affects around 5% of those aged over 65 and 20% of those over 80 in the general population and although the prevalence of dementia in the prison setting is largely unknown, it is thought that rates may be even higher and that many cases go undetected and unsupported.

A 2019 report from Clinks, the umbrella body supporting voluntary sector agencies working in the criminal justice system, identified the voluntary sector as absolutely key in supporting older people across the criminal justice system.

In a conclusion which will be familiar to many readers, the report says that public and private sector organisations tend to assess needs and organise services from specified statutory, contractual and professional perspectives. Voluntary organisations are usually less constricted, more often user-led, and more able to respond to whatever needs they come across.

The report agrees with prison inspectors that many prisons and localities lack any expert provision working with older people in the justice system before giving examples of some specialist schemes including:

  • Recoop, a national charity that specialises in working with older people who have offended. Its governance and management structure supports projects funded by contract and adapted to the needs of specific prison and community settings.
  • Restore Support Network,  a small user-led national charity specialising in support for people aged over 50 who have offended.
  • Age UK which is contracted to provide services for older prisoners in several prisons in the North East.
  • The Safer Living Foundation is a small charity working in the Midlands with people convicted of sexual offences. Projects include a Circles of Support and Accountability programme for prisoners aged 55+ who are being released from HMP Whatton, a Category C treatment prison in Nottinghamshire and who are at high or very high risk of sexually reoffending.

Readers who are interested in this topic, can read the Clinks report here.