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Older prisoners may be serving their time, but our jails aren't fit for the elderly

A general view inside HMP Brixton | PA Images

4 min read

With an ageing prison population living in an outdated estate, more work must be done to keep elderly prisoners healthy and help them rehabilitate

In the sitcom Porridge, still one of the most familiar television versions of what life is like in jail, an “Old Lag” takes a young first-timer under his wing and teaches him how to survive.  

Ronnie Barker was 45 when he played that “Old Lag”. 

Of course, the reality of prison life was very different at the time that series was made, and much has changed in both prison and wider society since the mid-1970s, but one of the most striking features of the prison population of the 2020s is how much older our prisoners are becoming.  

The number aged 60 or over has gone up 82% in the last 10 years, 243% since 2002. 

In large part, this is because a significant number of older men – famous ones like Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall among them – have been jailed many years after committing sexual offences.  It also owes something to longer sentences, meaning more people grow old in prison, or, indeed, die there.

Chances are this will continue for the foreseeable future, and the justice committee’s report on the Ageing Prison Population, published today, sets out some pointers on how the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service can cope with that continuing trend.

It’s the mark of a civilised modern society that punishment sits alongside humane treatment of those the state detains as well as efforts to rehabilitate them

Why does it matter if prisoners grow older? After all, they did the crime and need to do the time.  But it’s the mark of a civilised modern society that punishment sits alongside humane treatment of those the state detains as well as efforts to rehabilitate them, not just to prevent their committing more crimes when they leave prison, but to give some chance of a meaningful life, useful to wider society.

Older prisoners have different needs from their younger counterparts. Most obviously, their health problems are likely to be greater, particularly for those who are or become very old in prison.  

As many as 85% of prisoners aged over 60 may have some form of major illness.  Treatment within the prison, arranged hospital visits, adjustments required to make life liveable for someone with a serious or debilitating illness are all pressures on the service, but one of my committee’s concluding principles in our report is that we need to remember that every one of the 80,000-plus people in prison in England and Wales is an individual with individual needs, and, of course, an individual level of risk to the wider community.

The case of prisoners with severe dementia or other complex health or care needs is particularly difficult, and we have suggested that, in some circumstances, an alternative form of custody should be considered for those no longer aware of why they are in prison. In saying that, we do recognise that victims of those prisoners must be remembered before decisions are taken that might add to their suffering, particularly those who waited decades to see the perpetrator convicted, such as some victims of sexual abuse. 

Older prisoners have different long-term needs – those over 60 may less need education and training, or the kind of work experience or courses that prepare prisoners for the world outside.  In the absence of education or work, what meaningful activity can be provided for those who may spend years inside, largely in their own cells?  We warn against their being neglected as efforts are made to return younger counterparts to the community.  Older prisoners on release, too, need safe, secure places to live and help with jobs or in navigating benefits or social care systems. 

Much of the prison estate, a deal of it built by the Victorians, was not designed with old men and women in mind.  Shared cells with bunk beds, lavatories without disability handrails or space are just two examples of routine facilities that may not work for prisoners with health or mobility problems. 

The Prison Service has made enormous strides in developing its estate for its changing population, but much remains to be done, and our inquiry has found that limited funding often stymies provision of reasonable adjustments. Need for palliative and end-of-life care is likely, too, to rise, and, since that may mean planning and spending, it’s one reason we believe a new national strategy for older prisoners is essential.


Sir Robert Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and chair of the Justice Select Committee

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