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.
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?