Ageing Prison Population

Ageing Prison Population

Ageing prison populations are increasingly a major point of concern for penal policymakers. According to a recent Scottish Justice Matters article, ‘The number of prisoners aged over 50 in Scotland increased by 71% from 387 in 2001 to 660 in 2011’. Scotland already produces a designated census on older prisoners which gives us some insight into this group of incarcerated people. Some headline statics include: 87% of older prisoners have accessed a doctor, 36% report that they have a disability and 46% of them report having a long term illness (compared to 27% of prisoners under 50).

What these statistics fail to capture is the qualitative and more complex dimensions of daily life for older people in prison in Scotland. Have there been changes in their healthcare and treatment for their long term illnesses upon entering prison? Does being in prison exacerbate these illnesses? If they were retired, what sort of activities do they partake in? Particularly as work is often used and encouraged as an important dimension of prison rehabilitation programmes. For staff as well, do they feel equipped to support older prisoners? The system is generally organised around young men, often unemployed and likely to be suffering from multiple addictions (usually a point made in relation to how prisons marginalise women). In Scotland in particular, we hear so much of the desistance language framing SPS decisions, polices and programmes, but do we need to think differently about desistance in relation to older prisoners?

These concerns have begun to dominate the minds of policymakers as there is a growing number of older people in prisons. According to a detailed brief from RECOOP, in England and Wales older people are the fastest growing demographic group in prisons. Charities which attend to the particular needs of older citizens have also begun to address the very specific needs of caring for elderly prisoners (For example, see this report from the Australian group, Alzheimer’s Australia: Dementia in Prison)

This year the Chief Inspector of Prison, David Strang, highlighted that Scotland too has an ageing prison population. Consequently, facilities which support and care for the increased number of people incarcerated with disabilities and dementia need to be in place. Even the basic design of prison space, particularly cells, needs to be adapted to meet the needs of older people, particularly those with limited mobility.

How can SPS and Scottish prison policy strategies develop to best support this particular group of people? Prison may be concerned with punishment and rehabilitation, evidently, it must also address and support the care needs of older people in their custody.  Otherwise, the risk is that we compound the experience of punishment for older people in prison. As Juliet Lyon and Mark Day remarked in a recent Guardian article ‘Some older people have committed serious crimes and it is important that justice is done, whether someone is aged 18 or 80. But imprisonment for many old, disabled people can amount to a double punishment’.

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