The challenge of an ageing prison population

Kenny MacAskill
Wednesday, 14 December 2016

It's said that prisons reflect our societies. From the aboriginal community in Australia to the poor in Scotland, those at the bottom of the social pile predominate in their penal institutions.

But prisons also mirror other social trends and as our society ages so does the prison population. It’s not simply prison officers with the absurd age that they’re expected to work too that are getting older, but those that they’re expected to care for who are turning grey.

Expecting a prison officer to work to 67 or 68 is an abuse. So too, though, will be placing some vulnerable and frail elderly prisoners in current penal institutions. Our prisons, as with our society more generally, are having to adapt to an ageing population.

In Scotland, there were 88 male prisoners aged over 65 in 2011. By October 2016 it had risen to 152. Those aged between 60 and 64 grew from 92 to 136 in the same period. There are similar trends in the under 60s.

This is all that at a time when the numbers in custody in the Young Offenders Institution fell substantially, through a variety of factors, especially good work in early intervention. Moreover, the total numbers within the prison estate reduced, albeit by a more limited figure. The trend is clear. There’s an ageing population growing in our prison estate. Scotland is not unique. What’s happening north of the border will equally be occurring south of it.

Long sentences

It’s not down to the miracle of modern medicine. For sure, increased longevity is benefitting all, though minorities much less so. The reason is twofold. Longer sentences are seeing prisoners going in as relatively young men but sometimes unlikely to see the light of day until their twilight years. That trend is only going to continue, given current retributive attitudes in Government and the press.

However, it’s also fuelled by historic sexual abuse cases. They are seeing many now punished in their later years for crimes perpetrated sometimes decades before. Recent exposures of abuse in football and elsewhere will only further increase prosecutions and convictions.

Of course, neither age nor infirmity should be an impediment to justice or a get out of jail card. I recall a senior prosecutor who I greatly respect making the valid point that these people had taken someone’s childhood and could rightly expect to forfeit their old age.

The challenge of older prisoners

It does, though, bring huge challenges for the prison service. I’ve great respect for those who work in our penal institutions. Often, they’re already expected to act as psychiatric nurses, a job for which they’re not trained but try their utmost. Now they’re expected to become carers for the elderly but in a setting that is unfit for purpose, and poses huge challenges with other inmates.

I recall visiting a prison in Scotland where many elderly inmates were housed and where a complete wing had been given over for their care. Separating them for their own safety from younger prisoners with their own warped moral code, was hugely problematic. So was their general care from officers seeking to find things to occupy individuals with early stage dementia; through to the slightly humorous but equally sad situation of being unable to double them up in cells, due to rheumatism or arthritis restricting their access to a top bunk.

The pressures are only going to grow. Neither prison officers nor the prison estate are suited for it.

Possible solutions

In Scotland, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons is carrying out a thematic review along with some leading academics. All options ought to be considered. Electronic tagging may be both suitable and a solution for some; their movements already restricted enough by old age without the requirement for prison walls. Formal incarceration would be a waste of time and money. Other solutions may even include the acquisition of a care home facility.

After all it would be easier to seek to make one slightly more secure than adapt a prison to a care home facility. Though, some dementia units are probably on the way to being adequate anyway and doubtless cheaper too. Moreover, it perhaps simply mirrors the secure units that challenged and challenging young people are housed, but in reality, detained in.

There’ll no doubt be an outcry from the usual siren voices demanding punishment and retribution in a prison cell. However, the Inspectorate and the Scottish Prison Service need support for any radical proposals that they come up with.

Old age as they say doesn’t come alone. Punishment there no doubt must be, but prison need not and cannot be the facility.