Britain must tackle ageing prisoner problem

Published: 7 August 2012 at 15:05

US-style ‘secure care homes’ are not the answer, warns Anglia Ruskin academic

Britain’s ageing population is presenting complex new challenges for Her Majesty’s Prison Service, according to the author of a new book.

Dr Natalie Mann, Lecturer in Criminology at Anglia Ruskin University, warns that the stereotypical image of the elderly as the “frail” victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators, could lead to Britain sleepwalking into a crisis within the prison system.

In line with the general trend in society, males over 60 are the fastest growing age group within Britain’s prisons, increasing from 699 in 1996 to 2,242 in 2008.

Dr Mann, author of Doing Harder Time? The Experiences of an Ageing Male Prison Population in England and Wales, said:

“Our society is simply not used to thinking about older people in terms of their involvement in crime, but the figures speak for themselves and the issue requires a proper strategy from the government.
“A similar trend is also evident in the United States, where some academics mistakenly thought they were witnessing the first ripples of a ‘geriatric crime wave’.  In Britain it is clearly the result of several factors, including an increase in life expectancy and the legacy of the previous Government, whose over-reliance on custodial sentences resulted in a 39.5% increase in the general prison population.
“Another cause has been the deliberate increase in the number of men being prosecuted and sentenced for child sex offences committed decades ago. This group of offenders now make up almost 50% of the total ageing prison population.”

Despite the significant challenges facing the prison system, Dr Mann opposes the introduction of “secure nursing homes”, which are commonplace in the United States and have been trialled in Britain. 

“The United States’ solution to the ‘greying’ of their prison population has been to house ageing offenders in specially designed institutions away from the mainstream prison population,”

said Dr Mann.  

“These ‘secure nursing homes’ are considered by some as the obvious solution to the problem, as they protect the elderly from the aggression and dangers of prison life.
“However, far from providing the perfect solution, age segregation can actually increase problems as it encourages dependency and increases psychological ageing due to the lack of interaction with younger prisoners.
“HMP Kingston’s E Wing was Britain’s first attempt to trial this system although far from providing sanctuary for the residents, E Wing became an environment where the men stagnated and often became isolated.  Referred to as ‘God’s waiting room’, many ageing prisoners were frightened of ending up in E Wing.
“Having received criticism from two consecutive HM Chief Inspectors of Prisons, E Wing was closed in 2004.  Surprisingly, in 2005 HMP Norwich opened a purpose-built Elderly Prisoner Unit which provides beds for 15 men.  Similar in style to the nursing home facilities found in the US, the success of this unit is currently unknown.”

Dr Mann believes that the most appropriate way of managing these ageing prisoners is to make provision for them within the mainstream system.  She added:

“The overall increase in the prison population has stretched resources to the limit and placed increased pressure on prison staff.  
“In an environment where the day-to-day running of the prison is as challenging as it could possibly get, it is little wonder that there has been no voice given to older prisoners and no calls for the implementation of age-specific policies.
“However, the very basic requirements of the ageing prison population, such as adequate healthcare, appropriate education and employment, and regime differentiation are continually being overlooked.
“In recent years, a number of UK prisons have begun to implement their own age-related initiatives and it is these prison-led schemes, such as nostalgia groups and low-impact exercise classes, together with the work of charitable groups such as RECOOP (Resettlement and Care for Older Offenders and Prisoners), which are leading the way in the absence of any official policies.
“If the prison service, together with the government, cannot free up the resources needed to implement a national age-specific policy, then it can at least make minor changes to existing policies, so as to incorporate the needs and requirements of older prisoners into the daily running of every prison establishment.”