Prisons were failing to meet the needs of the elderly despite the number of prisoners over the age of 50 years almost tripling since 2002, say the Prison Officers’ Association (POA). The prison population in England and Wales is the largest in Western Europe and currently stands at 83,795, according to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Justice. That is 486 more than the same week 12 months ago.
Some 16% of those inmates are over 50 years old with nearly 2,000 inmates over 70 years old. Many are frail, incontinent or have dementia and are still living in Victorian-style prisons, according to the POA.
According to the group’s general secretary, Steve Gillan, the coalition government had ‘failed miserably’ in its promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’. He accused the government of appearing to be making up and announcing policy ‘on a daily basis’. ‘Our prisons are in crisis,’ he continued.
Thehousing of an increasingly elderly population has led to prison offers acting as carers, the POA says. A former officer speaking to the BBC said that young prison staff are trained in disciplining and rehabilitating prisoners and that ‘doesn’t include end of life’. He explained that those coming straight from university with very little life experience are having to deal with ‘major traumatic events like somebody dying in front of them or caring for somebody that is at the end of their life’. He said that it is part of the ‘new role’ for prison officers, but is something omitted from any form of college training.
A report published last year on social care in jails by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission recognised that the prison service and local authorities were ‘failing to plan for the future needs of a growing population of elderly, ill and frail prisoners’. It stated that many of the older jails were ‘ill-equipped’ for prisoners in wheelchairs, or with mobility problems, and that the quality of care was inconsistent across prisons.
The chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, has already questioned whether those who are older, less capable physically or infirm, can be dealt with in a different way. He recognised that although they do not pose an escape risk, ‘it’s not to say they wouldn’t represent a risk to the public if they were completely at liberty’. Clarke questioned whether they needed to be held in levels of security at high public expense. He has said that officials need to be thinking more ‘radically’ about tackling the problems that arise from trying to accommodate the elderly.
The national chair of the POA, Mark Fairhurst, has called for more disabled access cells to be situated at ground floor level, as well as 24-hour healthcare services and more training for staff. Dr Mary Turner, a reader in health services research at Huddersfield University, has identified possible solutions include building secure care homes and considering alternatives to custodial sentences for older offenders.