Whether old Victorian gaols or newly-built units, prisons are designed for young adults – both in terms of the regime and the physical environment itself. However, the over-60s are now the fastest-growing group amongst prisoners in England and Wales. We know from previous research that this group has a complex set of physical and mental health needs, and that these are often unmet. Our research looked at the social and custodial issues faced by older adults in prison.
We interviewed 262 prisoners aged 50 and above across North West England. Compared with the general prison population the older group appeared to represent less of a discipline problem, with fewer adjudications, a lower security rating, and less time spent in segregation.
Some prisons have special arrangements for older prisoners with dedicated wings, light work, and age-appropriate gym sessions. Where available these were highly appreciated, but most sites had limited activities available and buildings which were difficult to negotiate.
Our sample found it difficult to live with younger prisoners, with bullying on the wings common. While some felt valued for giving advice to others, most thought that they should have separate accommodation. Many had been moved away from their home area and consequently 40% had no visits at all from family or friends. On release too, many had no idea where they were going to live or what would happen to them – a particular problem for the 62% imprisoned for a sex offence.
Most people probably don’t think about elderly people being in prison, and because they generally a quiet and unassuming group it is easy to forget about their needs. While there are pockets of good practice and HM Inspectorate is starting to demand improvements, we need a written strategy for how we can best identify and meet the needs of this emerging group.