Justice CommitteeWritten submission from Dr Elaine Crawley

1. The evidence presented here draws directly on the findings of research I have conducted since 2002 on the experiences, perceptions, and needs of older male prisoners (ie prisoners of retirement age and above), in particularly the impacts that their imprisonment has on their physical health, and on the psychological and emotional impacts of their imprisonment. The research began from a recognition that the number of older men in prison in England and Wales had risen sharply over the course of the last decade. This increase has been a sustained one and has significantly outpaced the general rise in the prison population over the same period. My colleague (Professor Richard Sparks) and I set out to grasp the prison-level consequences of this hitherto relatively un-remarked development through a systematic programme of observation and interviews with staff and prisoners with the following objectives:

To explore the social and emotional impacts of imprisonment on the older prisoner and to examine the coping and survival strategies which older prisoners adopt in coming to terms with custody and with the cultures, routines, rules and practices of the prison.

To explore how physical ageing (and the decline in physiological effectiveness that accompanies it) is experienced in prisons, and the implications of the ageing process for prison management (including health and social care).

To explore how the older prisoner (especially the long-term prisoner) views his eventual re-entry into the community, and to examine current practice in preparing older prisoners for re-settlement and social integration.

To explore how uniformed staff who work with older prisoners see their role, given that they work with a group of prisoners who, by virtue of their age, are likely to have markedly different attitudes, needs, problems and experiences from the general the prison population.

To illuminate the resource, regime and policy implications of the confinement of older people.

2. The first achievement of this study was to have gathered new data that informed each of these points. Second, it was possible to develop analytic frameworks that productively link these discoveries with extant traditions of inquiry in the social analysis of imprisonment and with other social scientific resources.

I feel it is important to emphasise that I encountered exceptionally high levels of distress amongst the prisoners throughout this study, and have subsequently been able to pose questions about how the generic “pains of imprisonment” may be amplified by advancing age.

Unexpected Findings

I did not expect to find so many elderly men serving relatively long sentences for “historic” offences (usually—but not in every case—sexual offences allegedly carried out up to five decades ago).

Bearing in mind the requirements of current and forthcoming Disability legislation, I did not expect such a “patchy” approach to meeting the health and social needs of elderly prisoners, many of whom are immobile and chronically ill.

I did not anticipate such a contrast between national policy (virtually non-existent) and local practice (often innovative and sensitively carried out).

I did not anticipate the divergence of elderly prisoner preferences as to whether older men should be “mixed” in with, or “segregated” from younger, fitter prisoners.

3. There is disagreement about who constitutes the “older prisoner”. Some countries, and some authors, define prisoners over 50 years as “older”, and when compared to the general population they are indeed older. In my own view, however, our retirement age for men (65 years) is the age at which most people, both within and outside the prison community are starting to “feel old”. I do not accept the generally held view that prisoners are generally 10 years older, both physically and mentally, than his counterpart in wider society. This was not borne out during my research: rather people from all walks of life age differently. The “older” prisoners I have interviewed in the period 2002 to the present have been aged between 65 years and 84 years.

4. I am in agreement, however, with the numerous agencies which have striven, for over a decade, to press for a National Strategy for the proper management of older prisoners. Of the prisons selected for the project (the range was selected precisely because they held relatively large concentrations of older men), the differences in the extent to which prisoners’ age-specific needs were being addressed (or not) was quite striking. In HMP Wymott, for example, prison officers were generally more aware of these needs, and had put in place, with the support of the Governor-in-Charge, various “local” innovations such as more comfortable chairs, anti-slip mats and grab grails in the showers, and had engaged a very friendly husband and wife team (both Captains in the Liverpool branch of the Salvation Army) who, once a month, held the CAMEO (Come Along and Meet Each Other) Club. This club, set up and run by the couple, was extremely well-attended, giving upwards of 40 older men the opportunity to play dominoes, listen to an outside speaker, take part in a quiz or just sit and talk. With a mug of tea in one hand and three biscuits in the other, one man told me that “When you come here, for a couple of hours you can forget you’re in a prison.” Despite the kindness and resourcefulness of many officers, it remained the case that a number of the more elderly men, especially those suffering from health problems such as poor mobility, incontinence, hyper-tension, lung diseases, arthritis and Parkinson’s were still not able to engage in the activities available to their much younger counterparts. While most prisoners of pension age do not wish to go to the gym to lift weights, they very often do wish to visit the chapel, or the library, or to simply go out for a little fresh air. Unfortunately, for a number of older prisoners, this was simply impossible, even at Wymott. In each of the four prisons in the study, older and infirm prisoners were, formally at least, subject to the same regime (same time-tables, same physical layout, same practices, same rules and same activities) as younger men in the same establishment, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. When I asked my interviewees whether officers generally made any concessions (in the regime/time-table) for the ageing and less mobile, they overwhelmingly said that this was not the case. For example, one man in his seventies remarked that:

“..they still expect us to do things within the same time frame as younger men, such as get to the gate in time for the exercise period….things like that. If we’re too slow, the gate’s shut and we’re sent back to the wing. Others that can manage to get there alright don’t go either, because there’s no toilet in the yard so if want to go you’re stuck.”

5. Neither were “cell-bound” prisoners in other prisons able to relax, even in their own cells, since hard, wooden schoolroom chairs were the only type available to sit on. It was alarming to see that one man in his late 70s spent all day sitting on the edge of his bed with his back unsupported and his legs dangling while doing his “in-cell work” (an embroidered cushion cover). When I asked if he was “comfortable like that?” he said that he hadn’t much choice because “when I sit on that chair it makes my bottom hurt”. Not only was the lack of support to his back likely to cause back pain, the lack of support for his legs was likely to lead to thrombosis.

6. Moreover, unlike (however problematically) women, young offenders or psychiatric patients, older prisoners are still scarcely recognized at the policy level as a distinctive or special group. No imperative exists therefore to vary the regime or timetable to meet their needs or abilities, if it is inconvenient to do so. My research colleague and I termed the resulting acts and omissions that impinge negatively on the older prisoner “institutional thoughtlessness”. Ten years on, while there have been some developments and improvements (eg a 20 bed unit was established at HMP Norwich, and most of the prisoners I had interviewed in HMP Kingston’s “Elderly Unit” were transferred there when the Unit was deemed unfit for purpose by an incoming Governor-in-Charge. It is arguable, however, that seen in the bigger picture of the less-than-legitimate treatment of older prisoners, these changes are relatively modest, both in their character and their scope.

7. The participant observational work which was central to this study allowed me to understand how older prisoners negotiated their way through and around the requirements of everyday life under the prevailing regimes—their daily tactics, innovations and tricks for survival, and their methods of coping with the challenges of (largely inappropriate) buildings and the exigencies of the prison timetable. At HMP Kingston I regularly observed elderly men unsteadily negotiating a stair-lift whilst balancing plates of food and a walking stick. At prisons without stair-lifts we saw elderly prisoners struggling up stairs or remaining in their cells during the exercise period as they were too immobile to walk to and from the yard in the time allowed. Importantly, my observations also allowed me to recognise the heterogeneity of this elderly prisoner group; while many in their late-seventies were largely immobile, forgetful and depressed, others enthusiastically took computing classes, wrote essays or went to the “Seniors” exercise class.

8. A one-size-fits-all regime for older and elderly prisoners would also be inappropriate.

Asked if they would like to move to a wing dedicated to older prisoners, a large number of the men I have spoken to said words to the effect that it would “be my idea of hell”. Although they were old and frail in their bodies, in their minds they remained in their thirties and forties, and liked to chat with younger prisoners, liked their company, their wit, and their music. They felt that it kept them young. In stark contrast, other older men said that a dedicated wing for older men would be “bliss” because they could get away from noisy prisoners and the possibility of personal possessions being taken from them by much younger, stronger men, who found it easy to bully the more frail and compliant prisoners out of goods such as their tobacco, biscuits and tea. It was interesting that a large numbers of older male prisoners have, over the years, suggested a compromise in terms of their living environment. This entailed being able to go and visit younger prisoners in different parts of the prison if they wished, but being able to “return to a safe haven at night”.

Release and Resettlement

9. Most prisoners are eventually released, and so they must make preparations for resettlement. Prison Service Order 2300 (para.1.12) states inter alia that account must be taken of the diversity of the prisoner population and the consequent differences in resettlement needs, and that specific sections of the prison population (eg elderly prisoners) may need to be catered for in different ways. However, I found that elderly prisoners due for release often have intense anxieties about, and an inadequate understanding of the resettlement process. Two issues seem to give elderly prisoners the most concern; first, the lack of clarity from prison and probation staff as to where they are going to live, how they are going to get there (with limited money and poor mobility) and whom they will be living with. We were also struck by prisoners’ fears (by no means always fanciful) for their personal safety once in the community.

10. Anxieties about what release would bring were especially strong for those serving sentences for sexual offences against children. Several of our interviewees said that they had had to flee their homes, leaving all personal possessions behind, because of threats from neighbours to kill them or burn their houses down. In cases where offenders had expected to return home after the court hearing but had, instead, received a prison sentence, they had to rely on relatives or friends to retrieve personal possessions and this was not always possible. In numerous cases where the prisoner had been living in council-owned accommodation, it transpired that the housing office, upon hearing of the prisoner’s conviction, had entered the property and thrown everything out, including personal papers and family photographs. A key recommendation to be made here would be for arrangements to be made for those elderly prisoners with few friends (many prisoners find that their friends have died or moved to a care home whilst they had been in prisons) and no family (or a family who had no interest in them) to make arrangements for the safe-keeping of sentimental items and important paperwork. Otherwise, released elderly prisoners feel they have lost their past, and as such see no future.

11. Sadly, many prisoners who have grown old in the prison most have lost touch with the outside world, lost touch with family and friends, doubt their ability to make independent decisions and, in many respects, view the prison as home Some of these men can barely remember how long they have been in prison; one of my interviewees thought it was “about 30 years” while another thought he had come into prison when he was “about 40” (at the time of my interview he was 62). A third, an Alzheimer sufferer, neither knew where he was, how long he had been there or what he was there for. Fellow prisoners had the idea of sticking a large picture of a frog to the door of his room so that he could find his way back “home”. Amongst long-serving prisoners, the claim that there is “nothing and no one to go out to” is not uncommon. I was also struck by the number of elderly men who, although not particularly wishing to stay in prison, were, nonetheless, anxious about release. In some cases this was hardly surprising, given that, although only two or three weeks away from their release date, they had still not received confirmation from Probation as to where they were going to live or who would support them once they were out. For elderly, relatively frail men, fears of hostel life were intense. They were unsure if they could cope with the nature of hostel life or with the behaviour and attitudes of other (mostly younger) ex-prisoners already living there. Reflecting the prison population as a whole, those who are released from prison to hostels are usually relatively young men. Many have histories of violence and problems of alcohol and drug abuse and, as such, are seen by elderly men as threatening.

Blurring Role Boundaries: What many Officers feel about Working with Elderly Prisoners

12. The content and duration of training given to prison officers who work with elderly prisoners, particularly those who have diseases such as dementia or who are particularly frail is grossly insufficient. Officers tell me that when a prisoner falls down or ignores an instruction, they simply do not know what to do, For this reason, many officers, perhaps especially younger men, do not want to work with elderly prisoners. They do not regard them as “proper” prisoners because they are in the most part unchallenging and compliant ie not “proper” prisoners. By extension, they believe such work is not “proper” prison officer work. This attitude needs addressing: it relates to a long-standing and enduring macho culture. That is why I would argue for a a drive toward greater professionalization within the Service, ie something akin to the Norwegian model (KRUS) where prison officer training, which includes modules on penal philosophy and the ethics of imprisonment is completed in two years and not six weeks as in England and Wales.

Concluding Remarks

Presently, the treatment of older prisoners does not comply with equality and human rights legislation. At present, the focus is often equality (everyone gets the same) but all too often equality = unfairness and the breaching of human rights. A national strategy for the treatment of older prisoners should certainly be established. It should define the minimum expectations for how to care for elderly prisoners appropriately; effective training for officers and the effective monitoring of health and social care need. Such a strategy does not leave the proper treatment of older prisoners to chance.

March 2013

Prepared 11th September 2013