Thursday, 24 July 2014

No Place for Old Men?

There is a popular misconception among ‘outsiders’ that British prisons are full of young, aggressive fit blokes: “sturdy beggars” of the kind English laws – such as the draconian Vagabonds and Beggars Act of 1495 – have always come down hard on. Picture a typical prisoner and he is likely to be under 30, tattooed, crop-haired and bulging with muscles from pumping iron in the prison gym. 

The years condemn...
While that image was probably always a bit of a myth to start with (heroin addicts and street drinkers tend to be on the skinny side), prisoners today are more likely to be greying round the temples and using walking aids. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has just released a series of statistics that reveal the extent to which England and Wales has an ageing prison population. With the category of ‘older prisoner’ now defined as being aged 60 or over, the total number incarcerated as of 31 March had reached 3,577. That means that the total number of older prisoners has almost doubled over the past ten years and now accounts for around five percent of the 85,000-strong prison population.

What is even more startling is that, of those older prisoners, 102 of them are aged 80 or above, with five men older than 90. In part, the marked rise is being attributed to more prosecutions for so-called ‘ historic’ sex offences. Both Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris are in their mid-80s and while there is unlikely to be much public sympathy for their particular situation, the ageing prison population has been causing serious problems for prison managers for a number of years and the number is continuing to increase year on year. 

However, it isn’t all about a recent influx of sex offenders of pensionable age. Another key issue is the imposition of significantly longer prison sentences. While the UK hasn’t (yet) followed the US route of sending cons down for 100+ year terms, some pretty heavy minimum tariffs have been handed down in recent years. All those serving such sentences can be expect to grow elderly and infirm before they are even eligible to be considered for parole. 

Then there are the ‘legacy cases’ of inmates still serving Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP). While there has been some effort made to progress IPPs through their sentences, there are also quite a few – particularly those maintaining innocence – who are effectively stuck in limbo. Even if they originally received quite short IPP tariffs – sometimes even as low as a matter of months – those inmates who aren’t eligible for Offending Behaviour programmes because they are claiming to be victims of miscarriages of justice, or simply because there are very long waiting lists for key courses, are also getting older. I know some who are already eight or nine years over their minimum IPP tariffs. On top of that, there are around 55 prisoners currently on whole life tariffs – all of whom are likely to grow old and die (or commit suicide) inside jail.

Imprisoned twice over?
Those are the figures, but what is daily life like for older prisoners inside the nick? The answer largely depends on where the individual prisoner is serving his sentence. Those stuck in Victorian B-cat locals definitely have a harder time for a wide range of practical reasons. Older prisons are not designed to be user-friendly, and definitely not for inmates who have serious mobility problems or who are suffering from severe health conditions. There are few, if any, bathing or showering facilities suitable for older prisoners with mobility needs or those who are confined to wheelchairs, let alone ramps or stairlifts to facilitate disabled access.

As an Insider, whose job was to support fellow prisoners on the wings, I had plenty of first-hand experience of the myriad problems facing elderly or infirm inmates. I started to document some of the more shocking cases of mistreatment and neglect I was witnessing. 

Then, in 2013, while I was still in the nick, I provided written evidence to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee via solicitors Leigh Day on HMPS care - or lack of it - for older prisoners. I knew that this might cause me personal problems since the prison system really doesn’t take kindly to cons who cause trouble, but in my view remaining silent would have made me complicit in the mistreatment, so I contributed some factual evidence. The Committee's report on Older Prisoners, published in September makes disturbing reading. 

An uphill battle...
The old Victorian B-cat local prisons are generally the worst. In one elderly prisoners who relied on two sticks or walking frames were assigned cells on the 2s or 3s (first or second floor landings). I witnessed men in their 70s or 80s struggling to manage steep, metal staircases to collect food. This particular prison made absolutely no provision for other prisoners to act as carers or ‘buddies’ – in fact I’ve known fellow prisoners be punished by staff for helping older men with everyday tasks, such as cleaning their cells or carrying food trays.

The layout of the wing in question made no allowances for access to those who had mobility problems. The main wing office was on the 2s (first floor), the stores for weekly kit change were on the 3s (second floor), while education and association rooms were up on the 4s (third floor). Although handing in of dirty kit was done on the ground floor, each prisoner then had to climb two sets of steep stairs to reach the stores. No assistance for older prisoners was permitted. 

The real depths of sadism were plumbed when an elderly inmate walking with two sticks and trying to balance a food tray at lunchtime slipped and fell, sending his tray and food flying across the servery area. The ‘cleaning officer’ – the young screw on duty and a particularly nasty example of his kind – screamed abuse at this pensioner who was in tears as he struggled to get to his feet. “Get a mop and clean up this f____ing mess, you filthy old bastard.” That was the level of his compassion.

Disabled facilities
Another older prisoner had been at the establishment for several months but had been unable to bathe properly as he was confined to a wheelchair. The prison had no appropriate bathing facilities for disabled or elderly inmates, so he struggled to use the sink in his cell. As he also suffered from a degree of incontinence, he absolutely reeked, through no fault of his own. He was also developing pressure sores. Why this prison had even accepted him was a mystery to me, since it clearly couldn’t cope with his specific needs. There is also something pretty obscene about seeing a disabled person chained to a wheelchair on his way to an outside hospital appointment.

Of course, not all prisons are this poorly organised. Another B-cat I was at did make a real effort to support older or infirm men. The administration actually paid volunteer prisoners £6.00 per week extra to work as part-time carers for prisoners with health or mobility needs. Their duties included going to the servery to collect meals for their assigned inmate, helping with kit change, cleaning the cell, helping them get to the fully-fitted disabled bathroom and assisting as required.

The situation was also helped by the fact that this was a relatively modern-design prison: two floors and the upper tier could be accessed by a well-maintained chair lift. There was also an evacuation plan where each older or disabled inmate was assigned a specific career who had been trained to get him out of the building in an emergency. 

Older prisoners also had a fenced garden area with wooden benches and wheelchair-accessible paths that they could use during association periods when the weather was good. Elderly prisoners who were able-bodied were encouraged to maintain the garden. This is an example of good practice within HMPS and in my written submission to the Justice Select Committee I flagged it up to MPs.

Good practice: prison carers
At the D-cat (open prison) I was in until recently, a small unit has been established to accommodate prisoners aged 60 and over. The spur is quieter, there is a fully-fitted disabled wet-room on the corridor and a peaceful garden area next to the chapel where retired or disabled prisoners can sit on benches. Almost everywhere is wheelchair accessible. However, these facilities are the exception. It seems that the rest of the prison sector has some serious catching up to do.

Of course, it’s not just about suitable facilities. Older and disabled prisoners often have a raft of complex needs, including healthcare requirements that are a challenge for prisons to meet, particularly given scarce resources and slashed budgets. Prisoners with life-threatening medical conditions can wait months for specialist appointments at local hospitals, sometimes dying before they can access appropriate treatment. For some prisoners, a custodial sentence can prove to be a death sentence by default.

Then there are other issues to take into consideration. Older prisoners can be more prone to being bullied or ‘groomed’ by other inmates. Those on regular prescription medication, particularly pain-killers, can find that they are intimidated into handing over their tablets to younger prisoners as a form of ‘taxing’ (extortion). They can be bullied into ordering canteen goods to pay for ‘protection’ offered by wing heavies. I don't want to give the impression that all younger prisoners are predators; they are not and I know of some amazing acts of kindness and altruism by young lads towards men old enough to be their grandfathers or even great-grandfathers, but the risk of exploitation is definitely a problem, particularly when there are fewer staff about on wings.

Prison can be a particularly severe punishment for old men, especially when the Ministry of Justice appears to lack any coherent strategy to deal with the continuing rise in the numbers of older prisoners. As the Prison Reform Trust recently highlighted, elderly inmates often present as being 10 years older than their actual age owing to the accelerating effect of imprisonment on ageing. Perhaps the appropriate question is whether many of these older prisoners, particularly those who are in poor health, should actually be in prison at all, especially where the risk of re-offending has been assessed as being low- to medium. Is there really no alternative in the 21st century?


  1. i work in social care and health care. the things you describe seem almost unspeakable to me. i think the problem is that we cannot really decide what to do with prisons, what their actual aim is supposed to be. why are we arresting people? often it is seen as punishment, sometimes as a safety measurement. i can sort of understand both. but i absolutely think that if we agree somebody isn't fit to live under 'normal' circumstances, we are absolutely responsible for their well-being. we need to 'care' for them and we cannot use lack of care as punishment. it is abuse in any other circumstances so it should be the same for prisoners.

    i think if these conditions were more visible to the public, which for obvious reasons they can't, there would be more outrage.

    do you feel that you were 'priviledged' in prison as you seem very resourceful and educated? it looks as though you were able to understand your circumstances and had the reflective power to make sense of things such as solitary confinement.

    i want to be nosey and ask you why you went to prison in the first place. i'm ahving a feeling you aren't keen to share this or else you would have already. my stereotyping is such that i cannot imagine someone of your eloquence and education to even be there in the first place. please enlighten me if you can.


    1. Hi Martina, thanks for your comments and observations. I agree with you on the whole issue of duty of care in prisons. The problem comes when prisons are so under-resourced that they simply cannot deliver.

      Through this blog, I'm doing my best to highlight the problems that are often hidden behind prison walls, out of view of the general public. Often, people who have no direct experience of prisons or prisoners find it difficult to understand what really goes on. It's only if they - or someone they care about - ends up inside that they start to realise the truth.

      To some extent, I was 'privileged' because I'd had a good education and professional jobs prior to going into prison. Compared to around half of my fellow prisoners who had serious literacy problems, I was definitely better off and could take time to read and write about my experiences. I think that I also made good use of my time inside, teaching others to read, writing four easy readers for use in the education department and working on a book on the anthropology of prisons.

      As I'm still on appeal against conviction, I can't really discuss my own case at this time. What I can say is that I was a whistleblower who went to the police, but ended up getting framed by some extremely wealthy, corrupt and powerful people. One day, when I've cleared my name, I'll be publishing my book about the case.

    2. Thanks for the reply. (bloody hell i can't spell!)

      i've been reading a lot of what james gilligan and jonathan asser had to say about violence in prison and how people can be helped. from what i'm reading here (dipping in and out of various entries) it seems as though there is no compassion once you are a prisoner. or very little, anyway.

      i don't know if you are interested in gilligan's work. he is or was a prison therapist in the US and i find him wonderfully compassionate and also realistic. i think what he is proposing is that people can be helped even if they are not released. but if they can learn to empathise, that's something they can learn.

      i was speaking to someone who is aiming to qualify as a lawyer. she said legal aid is essentially cut back to the barest minimum or thereabouts. all of it seems to hit the poor an uneducated. it all sounds really gloomy to me.

      do you know how long prison officers are trained for? i find that in social care, staff shortages are such that people are basically trained on the job for a few weeks and are then released into the wild. i had my induction i think 5 or 6 months after i started working. a lot of the issues in social care i think stem from only learning from other staff. if they are corrupt and/or incompetent, it means you think this is organisational culture.

      the way you describe your case... i'm surprised you have so little bitterness. that's quite remarkable. maybe you are holding all your bitterness to yourself, eh? either way, thanks for sharing.


    3. Thanks for your comments, Martina. In my experience there is compassion to be found in prisons, but it's mostly from other prisoners. Of course, there are some decent wing officers and governors, as well as good folk working in civilian roles (ie education), but they are increasingly over-stretched due to staff cuts, so often lack the time to listen to individual cons.

      For day-to-day support, most prisoners either have no-one (and therefore retreat into avoidance of others by staying behind their cell doors) or else seek help from other prisoners, including Insiders (peer mentors) and Listeners (Samaritan-trained inmates), as well as mates on the wing. I've discovered that there can be enormous kindness between prisoners, even some of those inside for very serious offences.

      It is true that many of those who end up in prison have backgrounds dominated by poverty, abuse, substance misuse, exclusion from education etc. This is not to make excuses for their crimes, but it does go some way to explain why they have made very bad choices and decisions. We all learn by observation from our parents, family members and those around us in early childhood. That's where many abusive and destructive behaviours have their origins.

      Trying to reverse, or at least mitigate, those disadvantages once someone is in the prison system can be a major challenge. Education can be one route, but even this can be fraught with problems and obstacles these days, some of which are down to staff shortages and budget cuts.

      As far as I am aware, prison officer entry candidates are required to undertake what is called 'Prison officer entry level training' (POELT) and this involves an initial 8-week training course at the Prison Service College at Newbold Revel near Rugby or at one of the local training centres. This is then followed by on the job training in a designated prison. There are further courses that can be taken for professional development, but maybe a prison officer reading this can expand on this answer!

      As far as I'm concerned, although I wouldn't have chosen to be sent to prison, I've gained an enormous amount from the experience in terms of knowledge and deeper understanding of the system. This is proving invaluable for my current research and the role I play in advising others, so it certainly wasn't time wasted.

      People I talk to or correspond with online do sometimes find it strange that I'm not bitter about being sent to prison for a crime that never even took place. However, since I'm a positive person (and have never suffered from depression), I made up my mind to get as much experience out of my situation as I could, as well as doing as much as I could to support and assist other cons.

      Once I've cleared my name - and I do believe that I will, even if it takes time - I'm planning to take a much more active role in campaigning on prison issues, including improving information about what goes on inside prisons and why urgent reforms are so needed to reduce the prison population, as well as making the prison experience actually work in terms of reducing reoffending. So, in the end, I think some good will come out of all of this!

    4. hey, thanks for writing back! and knowing stuff as well!

      i want to say good luck to you and for it not to sound lame. you are quite special. i don't think i know a lot of people with good sense and heart and all that and who don't turn bitter in these circumstances. it's good to know that it's not inevitable (there is no 'evitable' in your language! yes, there is silly, it is called avoidable! d'oh!).

      anyway, i'll just continue to potter around this blog and soak up the things you have to say. they are very interesting. thank you very much for sharing them.