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With an ageing prison population, it is ever more apparent that the needs of older prisoners are quite different to those of younger inmates.

Often with health issues, including mental health problems or even dementia, they may also have difficulties associated with substance misuse.

These all raise specific challenges that prison officers, prison nurses – particularly those with a focus on mental health – probation officers and substance misuse workers will have to be aware of and respond to.

Rising numbers of older prisoners

This shift in older prisoners has been driven largely by increased sentence length and more late-in-life prosecutions for historic sex offences.

The number of prisoners over 60 has tripled in 15 years, with prisoners aged 60-69 being the fastest-growing group with a 146% increase between 2002 and 2014 to 2,541.

Projections suggest there will be 14,000 prisoners over 50 by June 2020 while data from the House of Commons briefing paper on UK Prison Population Statistics showed that at December 31, there were 4,582 prisoners in the 60+ age-group – 5% of the 84,307 prison population.

Other figures obtained by the Guardian newspaper under a freedom of information request revealed an 87% rise in the number of prisoners aged 80-89 (from 102 to 191) and a 140% rise in prisoners aged 90-99 (from five to 12) in the past two years, with one prisoner aged 101.

National strategy for ageing inmates

Earlier this summer, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Nigel Newcomen produced a report entitled Thematic Review: Older Prisoners, where he said HM Prison and Probation Service needs a national strategy to address the needs of the increasing numbers of elderly prisoners.

He suggested there were six areas - where recommendations are frequently made following investigations into deaths in custody of older prisoners – where lessons still needed to be learned: healthcare and diagnosis, restraints, end-of-life care, family involvement, early release and dementia, and complex needs.

Prisons becoming “care homes”

“The challenge to HM Prison and Probation Service is clear: prisons designed for fit, young men must adjust to the largely unplanned roles of care home and even hospice,” he said. 

“Increasingly, prison staff are having to manage not just ageing prisoners and their age-related conditions, but also the end of prisoners’ lives and death itself – usually with limited resources and inadequate training. There has been little strategic grip of this sharp demographic change.”

With suggestions that prisons are effectively large providers of residential care for frail and elderly men, some analysts suggest now is the time to establish purpose-built “older prisoner” jails.

Support for older prisoners on release

Older prisoners nearing the end of a sentence will need as the return to life within the community. There will be anxiety, concern over where they are going to live and the health and social care support they will need.

The Prison Reform Trust and Restore Support Network have even raised concerns that older people released from prison were being set up to fail by a lack of adequate provision to meet their health and social care needs.

They have highlighted how limited and inconsistent support with housing, employment, personal finances and debt, drug and alcohol dependence, and re-establish family relationships, are undermining the effective resettlement of older prisoners and increasing the risk of future offending.

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