We Shouldn’t Let Old Men Rot Away In Jail

As the prison population ages, more and more elderly, often disabled inmates are left in their cells, unable to cope yet fearful of release

Features Justice Modern Life Prisons


The Hatton Garden gang, sketched by court artist Elizabeth Cook: Many of the defendants were in their sixties and seventies (©Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA IMAGES)

At 101, Ralph Clarke is believed to be the oldest defendant to face a court in British legal history. Last month, this retired lorry driver pleaded not guilty in Birmingham to 31 charges related to sexual abuse of children in the 1970s and 1980s. He was bailed until December when, if found guilty and given the custodial sentence such offences usually carry — and if he is still alive — he will become the oldest prisoner ever incarcerated in a British jail.

There are currently more than 12,000 over-fifties in UK jails, making up 14 per cent of the total prison population of 86,000. Those over 60 — 4,100 and rising — are the fastest-growing age group behind bars. Their numbers have tripled over the last 15 years, while the 15-to-24s have been going down and the 25-to-49s staying roughly the same. Figures for 2014 (the most recent available) show 102 over-eighties and five nonagenarians.

In part, it is just another aspect of the changing demographics of the UK. Since crime is not restricted to the young (four of those convicted of the 2015 “Hatton Garden Heist”, stealing valuables worth £200 million from a safe-deposit vault, were 76, 74, 67 and 58), an ageing population means an ageing prison population. And an OAP bus pass — such as the one used by the Hatton Garden gang’s leader, Brian Reader, to travel to the scene of the crime — cannot double as a get-out-jail-free card.

But there are more specific factors at play. The first is the dramatic sentence inflation that has taken place in recent decades under governments of all colours. The “tough on crime” and “prison works” rhetoric has been accompanied by ever-longer sentences, which in turn have resulted in a more than doubling of the prison population in the past two decades. Longer sentences mean more older prisoners.

The second factor is the increase in the number of elderly men jailed on historic sex abuse charges. Rolf Harris (86), Stuart Hall (86), Max Clifford (73) and Gary Glitter (72) are the most notorious among those whose past crimes against children have finally been brought before the courts in the wake of revelations about Jimmy Savile. Some 42 per cent of men over 50 in prison today are there for sexual offences, though only 10 per cent of sex offenders behind bars are there for gross indecency with children.

As made plain in Social Care or Systematic Neglect?, a new report jointly published by the Prison Reform Trust and Restore Support Network, our prison system is struggling to cope with the specific health, educational and social care needs that go with such an influx of elderly inmates. Many jails were built in Victorian times and were not designed with the lifts and ramps needed to accommodate wheelchair users or those with limited mobility.

Given the crimes that some of these elderly men have committed, and the many years they evaded justice, you might be tempted to ask: why worry about them and their needs? Haven’t they forfeited our concern? Surely, even within the remit of prison reform, there are others more deserving, especially when resources are limited?

It is an argument we regularly have at the Longford Trust. This small charity, set up in memory of that indefatigable prison reformer, Lord Longford, after his death in 2001, gives scholarships of money and mentoring to serving and former prisoners who want to rebuild their lives by studying for degrees at university. We are currently in the midst of our annual awards round and applications have been flooding in. We receive ten for every scholarship we can fund, and so the trustees prioritise the young on the simple, pragmatic grounds that, armed with the education many of them missed out on as youngsters for a whole host of reasons, they will have the most to gain from a chance to turn their lives round.

It is a rational choice for us, but still a troubling one. It means a pile of rejected forms from the over-fifties, many working purposefully in prison education departments, mentoring younger inmates with literacy and numeracy problems, while at the same time using their sentences to good effect by enrolling in distance-learning degree courses with the Open University (OU). They are, however, often unable to get funding from anywhere else to cover the costs. Once there was a central pot to pay for such studies, but since 2012 a student loan is the only option. And, if you have more than six years left on your sentence, or previous degree-level qualifications, you don’t qualify.

I have seen at first hand the wasted opportunities this means. I recently sat on Dame Sally Coates’s review panel on prison education, which reported in May to the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. Among the many images that stick in my mind from the six months we spent visiting 30 jails is that of a group of older male prisoners, in a bleak and brutal high-security prison (which meant they had committed serious or violent offences, carrying long sentences). In the drab, desperate conditions of a scantily-resourced education room, with out-of-date computers that can’t be linked to the internet for security reasons, they positively lit up with their enthusiasm for their studies. When I asked them a question on their chosen specialist subject, they gave me an essay in reply. “It is the only thing I have left,” explained one. “It keeps me sane,” confided another.

Most had been able to access a short taster OU course, for which there are still public funds available, but as the name suggests, it had only whetted their appetite for more. And that wasn’t going to be satisfied because there is no money. The prison governor had no extra resources for distance learning courses, he explained, even though in principle he recognised it would be money well spent on occupying otherwise bored, destructive and potentially dangerous men. The resulting idle hands would probably take up many more officer hours and cost much more in budget terms than an OU module ever would. Yet all he had to offer was Scrabble Club.

“I never realised until I came into prison what the term ‘doing time’ meant. I’ve been marking time now for almost 30 years — ticking the days, months and then years off. I’ve seen so many others come and go and, although they say they will keep in touch when they get out, only one or two ever have.”

Restore Support Network is a user-led charity that assists older prisoners during their time inside and when they are released into an always indifferent and sometimes plain hostile community. Part of its work is to collect stories and insights such as this from an inmate serving a long sentence, who had grown old in prison.

“The world I used to know has gone. I don’t know if any of my relatives are alive and I have no friends to visit me. I increasingly feel I am slowly dying away — ‘dead man walking’ as the saying goes.”

Mental health problems afflict 64 per cent of elderly prisoners, with more than a third of that number having suffered a major depressive episode. The isolation of those such as this lifer is a recurring theme in his work, says Stuart Ware, the chief executive of Restore. About 40 per cent of older prisoners never receive a visitor.

“I started my sentence before my grandchildren were born,” explains another of those whom the charity supports, “and because I’ve been moved around so much [between prisons] and now am at the other end of the country, I have not seen them or my daughter for over six years. We write occasionally but as time has gone on it has become less. She has to bring up the kids all by herself and there is little chance she could get here to see me. I should get out when I am 72 years old and I would love to live nearby and help out. She did say that she would love to have me near home, but that was some time ago and she may not want me as we have not seen each other for a long time now.”

Without family or friends willing to take them in, the prospect of a probation hostel, the usual standby on release, terrifies some. “I am so afraid of what I might expect when I have to go into a hostel,” one soon-to-be-paroled older inmate confided to Restore, “where maybe younger men use drugs and the staff will not know about my hearing problems.”

Which leaves old people’s homes. Even though many about to be released are only in their early seventies, they suffer disproportionately from poor health and have complex needs. “Older people in prison,” says the report, “have a physical health status 10 years greater than their contemporaries in the community, often the long-term effects of rough-sleeping and addictions.”

Yet it can be almost impossible to secure such residential accommodation, and “Shady Pines”-style establishments up and down the country are not about to roll out the red carpet for a newly-released prisoner with probation officer to boot, Ware points out. “It is bad and getting worse. We are regularly involved in the cases of older people, with no relatives, who have nowhere to go, and who are wheelchair users or need care assistance, and no one wants to take them.”

It creates a situation where some see no option but to return to prison as quickly as possible. “I committed my last offence to get back inside,” confesses one elderly Restore recidivist. “I didn’t really do any crime — just couldn’t be bothered to turn up to see my probation officer, which I knew would get me recalled [to prison]. Truth is, there wasn’t anybody there to help or support me. So now I’m in my seventies and back ‘home’. This is where I’m going to die — not that I want to spend the end of my life in prison, but what else is there for me?”

He has chosen to surrender his liberty in favour of a prison environment of open stairs, stacked landings, narrow doors and basic bathrooms ill-suited to accommodating an ageing population. When in 2014, Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, visited Winchester jail, he drew attention in his report to the plight of “two older, severely disabled men who shared a small cell, built by the Victorians for one”. Neither, he said, was able to do prison work, “so they spent 23.5 hours a day in their cell. Although there was a shower on the landing, it had not been adapted for use by people with disabilities and so they were unable to use it. Neither had had a shower for months but did their best to wash in their cell. They relied on other prisoners for help with tasks such as collecting meals. Wing staff were unaware of these problems when we brought them to their attention.”

In mitigation for those staff members, officer numbers have been reduced by 30 per cent in recent years as a result of the austerity drive, while the prison population has remained the same. “I meet elderly people in prisons who are totally immobile and I wonder what they are doing there,” says Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. “They are in completely unsuitable facilities, but because we refuse to face up to a situation that is largely hidden away behind bars, we don’t address it and rely instead on prison officers to act as social care workers.”

And, at times, as hospice workers. There is a long-established system of “compassionate release” for those prisoners within three months of death. It relies, though, on them having somewhere to go, and many simply don’t. And because it requires approval from the prisons minister, it takes time to get the paperwork together.

In a report two years ago, Nigel Newcomen, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, revealed that, during a specific period he had studied, 78 requests were made for compassionate release, of which 13 were granted. In 26 cases — one third — the prisoner died while it was being considered. That left half being turned down.

Between 2009 and 2013, 45 inmates aged over 50 died of natural causes in prison. In 2014 that number was 107. In such desperate circumstances, prison staff do as good a job in 85 per cent of cases as those outside in community facilities, Newcomen concluded, but in a quarter of “foreseeable deaths” there was no palliative care plan in place, as prison service guidelines require.

Prisoners’ dilemma: HMP Winchester (above), like other Victorian-built prisons, was not designed to accommodate older, disabled inmates (©Chris Ison/PA Archive/PA Images)

His greatest concern, however, was about the use of “restraints” — usually handcuffs — on the terminally ill. “Protecting the public is the principal role of prisons,” he acknowledged, “but this is not achieved by inappropriately chaining the infirm and dying.” It is never, he emphasised, appropriate at the point of death, but it happens.

In 1996, the then prisons minister, Ann Widdecombe, ran into a political storm when it was revealed that women in custody were being chained while they gave birth. There was public outrage. Handcuffing prisoners as they die is no less an indictment of our humanity. Yet when the ombudsman first publicly criticised the practice, it prompted hardly a murmur.

Widdecombe is today firmly on the side of those who oppose jailing the very old. “It was, admittedly, a lesser problem in my day,” she says, “but we should not be even considering imprisoning someone of 101. We have to look for a commonsense alternative.”

What might that look like? The Prison Reform Trust/Restore Support Network report makes two principal recommendations. The first is a cross-departmental national strategy for meeting older prisoners’ health, social care and rehabilitation needs. It is not a new request. The Prison Reform Trust has been asking for this since 2003, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons since 2008, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Justice since 2013.

The official answer is always that individual prisoners are judged on their particular needs, not their age group. There are, of course, precedents for such a national strategy — regarding the treatment of young offenders, for example.

One problem thrown up by proceeding on a case-by-case basis is that it assumes that provision across the prison estate is uniform. It is not. For every beacon of good practice, there are plenty of dark holes. So there are some prisons that give their staff training in dementia awareness (it is estimated that there are 4,200 serving prisoners with dementia but no one seems to know the exact figure). Some even have special wings for the elderly to stop them being bullied. And at HMP Whatton in Nottinghamshire there is an award-winning specialist programme dealing with the release of sex offenders, including the elderly, run in association with the charity Circles UK.

Yet at the same time the new report highlights lamentable failings in dealing with the most basic needs of older people– for example, it quotes the very high numbers of elderly offenders who do not even get a referral letter to take to a local GP on release. Since eight out of ten report serious illnesses or disabilities, and three-quarters are on medication, this should be a routine procedure.

In theory, the situation of the over-fifties on release is getting better as a result of the Care Act of 2014. For the first time, it made the local authority in the area where a prison is located responsible for the social care of all its inmates. “Older people with eligible needs are entitled to the same quality of social care in prisons as they would obtain outside,” reads a guidance note to this legislation.

There was even “new money” set aside for those local authorities affected, but it wasn’t ringfenced. Hence it could equally well be spent filling in potholes, usually a higher priority for local residents than the care needs of elderly convicted paedophiles in their midst.

“There are some local authorities who have been sympathetic and completed assessments and care plans for older prisoners in custody,” says Stuart Ware of Restore, “but once that individual is released, if they want to move away from the area of the prison, it can fall apart. We have a man we are supporting who came out of a prison in Devon. He has a care plan in place, but wants to settle elsewhere on the south coast. The local authority there just doesn’t want to know.”

Some believe that the growth in the number of older prisoners demands more radical solutions. “Whacking them in unsuitable old prisons, even if you put them in specialist units — or what officers have started referring to as ‘bingo wings’ — is a huge waste of public money,” argues John Podmore, a former governor who is now a prisons consultant and author. “Since most of the older prisoners we are talking about are immobile and infirm, and therefore in no position to escape, we don’t need to hold them in expensive prisons designed to contain fit young men. Realistically, at 82 they are not about to scale the prison walls.”

It costs around £40,000 per year per place to keep an inmate in a conventional prison. As part of Michael Gove’s plans to build a new generation of prisons suited to the 21st century, Podmore would like to see something bespoke for older prisoners. “It could be based on the model of an open prison, located in the middle of the countryside, making it even harder for those who can’t run to run away, and if necessary electronic tags could be used.”

Yet it won’t happen, he says, while the prison service remains in the grip of a culture that is too reliant on blanket risk assessments. In the case of elderly prisoners, that means it treats all of them as if they are the same as the most able and the most dangerous. “You should not keep bedridden, doubly incontinent old people with dementia in conventional prisons because one or two people of the same age are still active.”

Stuart Ware has a variation on the same theme. His charity has a long-term ambition to open and operate secure care homes, where infirm elderly prisoners sent down by the courts, and those ready for release but with nowhere to go, can be held at a fraction of the current cost of a prison place.

“We are not talking about a comfortable old people’s home,” he stresses, “more a halfway house with the basic facilities they need. We even had discussions with the previous governor of Albany on the Isle of Wight about building it on a spare piece of land within the prison perimeter. Anyone wanting to go there would have to be carefully risk-assessed. But then that governor moved on and it was off the table. I’d appeal to Mr Gove to look again at the plan. I believe it fits with his reform agenda.”

At the heart of Gove’s proposed reforms of our prisons are the linked themes of rehabilitation (giving people a “second chance” is the phrase he often uses) and cutting reoffending. With between 50 and 70 per cent of inmates (depending on which measurement you use) currently ending up back in prison within 12 months of release, the public is not getting good value for the money spent on incarceration. Since there is no prospect in the current economic climate of more money for prisons, Gove has been intent on making what resources he already has work better.

That was a key theme of the prison education review, whose recommendations he has accepted in full. It can work just as well in answering the specific needs of older prisoners. Stop paying out for a level of security that most elderly inmates don’t require, and hold them instead in appropriately equipped, less expensive facilities, with more care workers and fewer officers. That would free up space, resources and officer time for the rest of the estate.

But this isn’t just a practical problem. It is a moral one, as distasteful as that may be for those fearful of “going soft” on criminals. It can’t be said often enough that it is the going to prison — i.e. the deprivation of liberty — that is the punishment, not what happens inside. That doesn’t mean it should be the “holiday camp” of myth, but neither should it be degrading of human dignity. Getting the balance right is particularly tough when it comes to older prisoners. Yet, as their numbers continue to grow, it is increasingly vital.