Prison is not designed for older people, says Age UK

Age UK has warned the Justice Select Committee that the prison environment is not suitably designed for older people.

A range of experts attended a Justice Select Committee hearing on Tuesday to discuss the ageing prison population, including the Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke, National Chair of Independent Monitoring Boards Dame Anne Owers, CJA member RECOOP, the Care Quality Commission, and Age UK.

Professor Jennifer Shaw, Academic Lead at the University of Manchester’s Offender Health Research Network, told the Committee that prisoners in their 50s have similar healthcare needs to those in their 60s in the community.

Prof Shaw said that 85 percent of older prisoners have a physical health problem, compared with 65 percent in the community, and 45 percent of younger prisoners.

Prof Shaw added that there are higher rates of dementia in prison compared with the general population; seven percent of the prison population have possible dementia or cognitive impairment, compared to one percent in the community.

Emily McCarron, Equality and Human Rights Policy Manager at Age UK, told the Committee that the current prison environment is not suitable for older people.

She said: ‘They need alternatives that are suitable for their needs. That can be applied to the resettlement programmes as well, which are also not meeting the needs of older prisoners. If they have been in prison for a long time, they need specific resettlement training for when they leave prison.

‘It is about adjusting the regimes and making sure that they are suitable and adaptable, and specific to the needs of older prisoners.’

Ms McCarron also called for a national strategy for older prisoners, saying: ‘We need to bring things together so that we have a holistic approach across the board to cater for needs at every life stage of the prisoner’s experience.’

On the topic of COVID-19, Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said that ‘about a third [of older prisoners] are not held in single-cell accommodation. With the current figures, that is somewhere just over 4,000.’

Dame Anne Owers, National Chair for the Independent Monitoring Boards, raised concerns about the extent to which older prisoners could be shielded. She said: ‘The prisons we would be most worried about would be the local prisons, where there are small numbers, and it is very difficult to create the headroom to shield vulnerable people properly.’

Mr Clarke added: ‘What we will be looking at very carefully is the treatment and the conditions for older prisoners who are being held in shared accommodation, and whether that is in any way compromising their safety and their health. I think there is a perfectly valid question about how we can make the more vulnerable prisoners as safe as humanely possible within the confines of the overall prison estate.’

Other key points include:

  • To support those with a significant cognitive impairment, prisons should introduce specific units within prisons.
  • There should also be a range of facilities in the community, such as secured nursing homes, if the risk is very low. There is a real need for development of this pathway. 
  • It can be difficult to find suitable accommodation specific to the health needs and index offences of older prisoners.
  • Voluntary sector organisations who are already running day centres delivering training on social interaction skills and technology should be involved in resettlement.

Last year, the Criminal Justice Alliance published a briefing on the ageing prison population, recommending a national strategy, specialist training for staff, and better prison design and end of life care for older prisoners. We also submitted evidence to the Justice Select Committee ahead of this inquiry.

The Justice Select Committee has published a full transcript of the hearing.

You can read our other policy briefings and consultations on our resources page.