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Should we stop sending old men to prison?

The demographics of the British prison population are changing. An increasing number of ageing men are being sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. This raises questions about how they are to be looked after while in custody and, in turn, whether prison is the best place for them at all.

There has been a substantial rise in the number of prisoners aged 60 years and over in England and Wales over the past two decades. An increase in life expectancy has played a part in this, as well as an increase in the longevity of criminal careers. The targeted pursuit of historic sexual offenders has also had an enormous impact on the figures too.

But the prison environment is primarily designed for aggressive and able-bodied young men. The many stairs, poorly lit corridors and general pace of the prison regime are unmanageable for many ageing men. So it’s unsurprising that many experience grave difficulties when housed in such antiquated institutions.

These offenders undoubtedly need to be punished for their crimes, but the criminal justice system needs to strike a careful balance between curtailing freedom and protecting a person’s human rights; rights which are at risk from the inhumane and degrading treatment which some ageing prisoners have reported.

With age comes infirmity and general decline. So the greater the number of older prisoners, the more complex and costly health issues there are to deal with. The average ageing prisoner costs three times more a day to keep in prison than their younger counterpart, with an annual cost of about £115,000, compared to £38,000 for prisoners under 65.

A tough environment for an ageing population. Anthony Devlin/PA

Prison is, supposedly, a punishment reserved for the most dangerous offenders. If we remember that, then the futility of having some ageing men in prison becomes clear. How dangerous can a 90-year-old disabled man be?

Unfortunately, the British justice system is based on “popular punitivism”. It is a system that considers prison to be the only real form of punishment. This philosophy means that the situation these ageing men face has not received the empathy and alarm which it ought to.

Put your ideas about criminals aside for a moment and instead imagine an elderly man, sleeping in a bunk bed from which he frequently falls out; a man suffering from dementia, who cannot remember why he is in prison let alone how to get to the shower.

Picture an elderly man who has multiple health problems that require specialist treatment. He receives no adequate level of care for them because of budget cuts, staff cuts and the simple fact that he is a prisoner and, as such, is considered by many to be a second class citizen.

Picture a doubly incontinent man who is left lying on soiled bedding for hours before an overworked and pressured prison officer can come and assist (assist in doing a task which is not in the job description of a prison officer). Picture a man who has not showered for eight weeks because he is wheelchair bound and unable to leave his cell because the doors are not wide enough for him to get through.

Imagine the degradation, humiliation and fear these men experience every day and imagine that these punishments are all in addition to a loss of liberty (the one and only official aim of imprisonment).

Making do

Despite coming into effect in April 2015, the law aimed at setting out the social care that should be provided to the prison population appears to have done very little to ease the suffering of its older members.

My current research suggests their needs are still only being met in an ad hoc way. Too often, the prisons have to rely on the goodwill of staff and other inmates to assist in collecting meals and medication, taking elderly people to showers and generally helping them get around.

The courts should be able to be more flexible when sentencing ageing defendants. It should be possible to find alternatives for people if they begin to struggle to cope in the prison system because of frailty or old age. Other, more appropriate non custodial punishments should be explored, such as age-appropriate community service or electronic tagging.

The problems experienced by many ageing prisoners’ should force us to question our tacit interpretation of perpetrator and victim, good and evil, right and wrong. These men may have done bad, even terrible things, but let’s not punish them by making them victims. Lets find a more appropriate and cost effective way of punishing these individuals, who simply do not fit within the remit of the prison service.

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