A Positive Strategy For Engaging Older Prisoners


Sad and lonely older man in a prison cell

Nearly one in five prisoners in England and Wales are now aged over 50. Reasons include increases in average prison sentence lengths; people ageing as they serve multiple sentences, and a greater proportion of those convicted for historic (often sexual) offences. This third category means that there are now increasing numbers of prisoners coming into prison for the first time in later life. Despite repeated calls from policy makers, government committees, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman for a national strategy, the plea has fallen on deaf ears. The Justice Committee is currently accepting written submissions to their inquiry on older prisoners, the second such inquiry in a decade, the first inquiry recommending developing a national strategy. The justification for a lack of national strategy is based on the diversity of the older prisoner population. By way of contrast, women represent 4.5 per cent of the prison population, yet their (also diverse) needs have been recognised as being worthy of a national strategy.

Last year, I interviewed a number of men coming into prison for the first time in later life. As with younger prisoners, they highlighted issues relating to ‘entry shock’ but also the perception that staff expected them to have been in prison previously. However, one difference between younger and older first-time prisoners is that older prisoners tend to have had more settled lives before coming into prison, encompassing many of the factors which are highlighted in supporting desistance. Whereas the overall prison population is characterised by low educational attainment, high unemployment rates, high levels of homelessness and other characteristics of social exclusion, the men in my sample included business owners, directors of companies and retirees, many of whom were married home owners. Their points of reference in terms of making the transition into prison included workplace induction processes and ‘welcome meets’ on package holidays.

Another difference between younger and older prisoner experiences is of course the processes of ageing itself. There is medical evidence of prisoners ageing up to ten years faster than those in the community, which is partly where the rationale for using age 50 as ‘older’ prisoner emerges. Older prisoners’ partners are also ageing themselves, which worried interviewees regarding how their partners would cope without them. Such worries also extended to concerns about long travelling times for visits, and preparations for release, particularly where licence conditions would mean that the ex-prisoner would be unable to return to their marital home, or have contact with their grandchildren.

Despite the anxieties that the transition to custody brought, interviewees were keen to utilise their life experience and skills for the benefit of themselves and other prisoners. Older prisoners are often seen as a calming influence on the wings, and many men identified themselves as taking on paternal roles. Practical skills such as literacy, carpentry and musical instruments were all cited as examples where experiences could be passed onto younger prisoners, enhancing the regime for all.

Rather than hide behind the diversity of older prisoners as an excuse for inaction, or focus on the frailties that ageing in prison may bring, a model of healthy ageing, advocated by the World Health Organisation, would provide a useful framework to start developing a strategy. Although it could be argued that prison is not a place which fosters autonomy and engagement, such a model does encapsulate taking action to combat ageism; training the workforce, develop long term care where needed, and crucially, ensuring that intrinsic and functional capacity is recognised and developed. In the words of an interviewee, “age is a two-way process. There is lots you can learn from each other.”

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