Going grey behind bars: meeting the care needs of older people in prisons

The population is ageing. People are living longer, and are in need of greater levels of care than ever before. But how is this increase in life expectancy and demand for care being met in prisons? Our prison population is also ageing, at a time when the sector is under increasing pressure, low staff numbers, higher levels of prison violence and disorder, and poor, crowded living conditions. In an environment which is largely designed to support young, able bodied men, how are prison staff and care teams liaising to help meet the needs of older prisoners?

A care plan for ageing prisoners

A report published in 2017 by the Scottish Prison Service called for a specific care plan for ageing prisoners to react to and provide planning to reflect the change in demographic of the prison population. The report found that between 2010 and 2016, the number of men aged over 50 in Scotland’s prison population rose by more than 60%, from 603 to 988. According to a Ministry of Justice report on prison population, the number of inmates aged over 50 is projected to grow from 12,700 to 13,900 by the end of June 2020, a rise of 9.5%, while the number of over-60s behind bars will grow by 20% from 4,500 to 5,400 over the same period.

In July 2017 Prisons and Probation Ombudsman produced the Thematic Review: Older Prisoners, which stated that HM Prison and Probation Service needs a national strategy to address the needs of the increasing numbers of elderly prisoners. It highlighted six areas where lessons still needed to be learned: healthcare and diagnosis, restraints, end-of-life care, family involvement, early release and dementia, and complex needs.

The difficulties older prisoners face on prison estates are far reaching. Not only are there physical barriers to moving around and living within a prison environment, but the increased mental health and social care burden is significant, as well as the potential need to begin end-of-life care. Many prison inmates suffer from multiple, longstanding and complex conditions, including addiction, and these conditions are exacerbated by a phenomenon known as “accelerated ageing”, which suggests that prisoners age on average 10 years faster than people of the same age in the wider community.

While some prisons have effective care plans which allow older prisoners to live with dignity, often older prisoners rely on the goodwill of officers and fellow inmates to meet the gaps in their care needs. And while in England and Wales the Care Act means that, a statutory requirement to provide care lies with the local authority within which the prison is located, this is not a guarantee. Calls have been made for care planning in prisons to become more robust, with minimum standards of care and a clear pathway of delivery, with accountability and responsibility of specific bodies being made explicit.

 

Prison staff, care teams and the NHS in partnership

Any care planning for older people needs input from a number of different sources, and care planning for older people in prison is no different. It will require input from professionals across health, social care, and housing and the criminal justice system as well as wider coordination support and legislative and financial backing from central and local government.

Prisoners with physical disabilities or diseases such as dementia need specialist care at a level that standard prison officers cannot give. Research has suggested that prison staff are being expected to shoulder this extra burden, often having to perform beyond their duty to care for and look for signs of degeneration in prisoners, particularly those who show signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A number of research studies have looked at the provision of training and the use of additional, multi-agency staff to try to bridge the gap in care for elderly prisoners. In 2013 a review was conducted of multiple prisons, including some in England, the USA and Japan, which examined the training available on each estate for prisoners with dementia and similar conditions.

A number of schemes have been trialled, including extra training for staff, the allocation of specific wings or cells adapted to cater to the specific needs of older and vulnerable prisoners, and the use of peer to peer buddying or befriending services to help with care and support. Some prisons have also trialled the introduction of “dementia champions” to identify and support those with early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Extra challenges on release

As well as social care needs inside prison, specific rehabilitative needs of older prisoners being released from prison is also something that prison charities and reform bodies are keen to raise onto the agenda. A report from the Prison Reform Trust in 2016 highlighted the challenges of rehabilitative and parole needs of older prisoners, commenting that older people released from prison are being “set up to fail” by a lack of adequate provision to meet their health and social care needs on release. It highlights the limited and inconsistent housing, employment, debt and substance abuse advice available specifically for older offenders and suggest that their particularly vulnerable position puts them at risk of serious harm or reoffending.

Final thoughts

The population of older prisoners in our prisons is growing, and it is clear that a comprehensive strategy is needed to ensure that the specific, and at times unique care needs of these prisoners are met. This will mean greater cooperation from social care, health and criminal justice agencies, but will also mean reassessing how we think about social care, how it should be delivered and funded. The needs of older prisoners go beyond physical adaptations, to mental health, dealing with social isolation, the onset of chronic illnesses and at times the provision and planning of end of life care.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments are interesting our research team.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles:

Helping people with dementia to live well through good urban design

Planning for an ageing population: some key considerations

Co-production in the criminal justice system

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