Ageing prison population Contents

2The Older Prisoner Cohort

Defining the older prisoner

4.There is no universally accepted definition of old age in prisons. Age thresholds used by different organisations vary widely, from 45 to over 70.4 In England and Wales, the age of 50 has been adopted by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), in so far as the age of prisoners is recognised for operational purposes.5 This age threshold was also used in most evidence we received. It is lower than what is usually considered old age in the general population. Several submissions explained that this definition of old age in prisons is based on evidence that the health-related needs of prisoners are advanced by around 10 years, relative to people in the general population.6 For example, a 50-year-old prisoner could have the healthcare needs typically associated with a 60-year-old person in the community.7 There is also research evidence showing that health and care needs of prisoners aged 50–59 are very similar to those in their 60s, suggesting that it is appropriate to include the former age group within the older prisoner cohort.8 The accelerated ageing process may be caused by both lifestyle choices and social deprivation affecting a prisoner prior to custody, and by the effects of incarceration itself.9

5.However, the idea of accelerated ageing is not universally accepted.10 It is also possible that access to healthcare within prison may reduce its extent.11 The MoJ pointed out that rates of biological ageing and associated deterioration of health vary significantly among older prisoners, meaning, for example, that someone aged 70 may be healthier than another prisoner in their fifties.12 As discussed later in this chapter, a growing number of older prisoners are individuals who have been sentenced to prison for the first time later in life. These individuals may well enter the prison system in better health than younger inmates who have already spent an extended period of time in custody. Consequently, the care and support required by individual older prisoners are not all the same. On this basis, both the MoJ and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) suggested that consideration of whether a prisoner was ‘old’ and required different management within custody should be based on an assessment of individual needs, rather than chronological age.13

6.In practice, prison authorities apply some flexibility around a prisoners chronological age and take individual needs into account. For example, Graham Beck, Governor of HMP Wymott, explained to us how:

We are told that everybody over 50 in our custody is defined as an older person, so we make sure that we have appropriate assessments in place for everybody coming in, through our reception and induction processes, to focus on their needs, specifically if they are over 50. In practice, that means we have some flexibility in our regime. There are some men who are 50 and are happy to continue working and living in normal prison accommodation. Equally, we have some men who are younger than 50 but have specific needs around disability and other aspects of care—for example, social care. Although 50 is the absolute cut-off, we operate with some flexibility around individual needs.14

7.Our predecessor Committee, in its 2013 report on older prisoners, concluded that it did not make sense to impose a rigid classification of age when defining the older prisoner. However, they also argued that it was still important to identify common features among the cohort to inform policy towards older prisoners and address the ageing prison population.15

8.A clear definition of the older prisoner is necessary for establishing a more strategic approach to the cohort and the ageing prison population. We do not take a view on what that definition should be, but whatever age threshold is used should be based on firm evidence, and we encourage the MoJ to keep definitions used under review. Flexibility is also important, so that frail and vulnerable prisoners younger than any age threshold–50, 60, or otherwise—are managed in the most appropriate way. We also believe that prisoners need as far as is possible to be treated as individuals and receive regimes that are tailored accordingly.

The characteristics of older prisoners

9.Older prisoners can have distinct characteristics and needs compared to those of the wider prison population, including in relation to the nature of their offences, health needs, and behaviour. We give an overview of these below.

Offence profiles

10.Evidence we received for this inquiry and in the wider literature suggests that older prisoners can be split into four main criminological profiles:

i)Repeat or chronic offenders, who move in and out of prison for less serious offences and have returned to prison at an older age.

ii)Prisoners who have grown old in prison after receiving a long sentence earlier in life.

iii)Prisoners sentenced for the first time later in life for a short sentence.

iv)Prisoners sentenced for the first time later in life for a long sentence.16

11.Increases in convictions for sexual offences in recent years mean that older prisoners increasingly fall into the fourth category.17 45% of men imprisoned aged 50 or over are serving sentences for sexual offences, including historic offences; for those aged over 70, the figure is around 80%.18 This reflects that older adults are more likely to be convicted for sexual offences than their younger counterparts.19 Within the prison population as a whole, around 18% of prisoners are serving sentences for sexual offences, demonstrating how older prisoners are more prevalent within this offence group.20

12.The next highest offence category among prisoners aged over 50 is violence against the person (23%) followed by drug offences (9%).21 Most men within this cohort are serving long sentences, with around 48% serving determinate sentences of over four years and some 18% serving indeterminate sentences.22 Among older female prisoners, sentencing profiles are more mixed; only around 4% of the female prison population are serving sentences for sexual offences.23

13.Older prisoners are less likely to reoffend than is the case among younger age groups. According to HMPPS’s MOD: Older Prisoners, 10% of prisoners aged over 50 are assessed as posing a high risk of reoffending, compared to 59% of those aged 21–49 and 58% of 18–20 year olds.24 Prisoners aged 50 or over are also less likely to commit further serious offences: 10% compared with 39% for 21–49 year olds and 71% for 18–20 year olds.25 Proven reoffending statistics show that 17% of offenders aged 50 or more reoffend within a year of release; for all offenders the figure is around 29%.26

14.However, around 26% of older prisoners are assessed as likely to have a reconviction for an offence involving sexual contact within two years of release, compared to 18% of those aged 21−49 and 14% of those aged 18−20.27 Research conducted by G4S in the prisons it manages has also shown that, while risk of serious harm and reconviction decreases with age for prisoners overall, the risk of serious harm, specifically towards children, increases with age among those convicted of sexual offences. This was attributed to increases in the number of historic sexual offenders entering prison for the first time at an older age.28

Health profiles

15.As a cohort, older prisoners experience high rates of physical and mental health problems and disability. Up to 90% of prisoners aged 50 or over have at least one moderate or severe health condition, and over 50% have three or more.29 Among prisoners aged 60 or over, rates of major illness may be as high as 85%.30 The prevalence of medical problems is greater in the older prison population than among younger prisoners.31 For example, in findings from the Government’s Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction survey (SPCR), 70% of older prisoners said they had received treatment or counselling for a physical or mental health problem in the 12 months prior to custody, compared to 45% of prisoners aged under 50. Differences were mainly driven by physical health problems: 51% of older prisoners reported receiving treatment for this type of problem, compared to 27% of younger prisoners.32 In addition, it was estimated that 54% of older prisoners had a disability (the figure for adults over state pension age is 45%), compared with 32% among younger prisoners (16% among working-aged adults more widely).33 Of the 54% of older prisoners with a disability, 28% were estimated to have some form of physical disability, 15% anxiety and depression, and 11% both.34 Regarding mental health, according to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, around 5% of prisoners aged 55 or over are estimated to be affected by dementia, while more than half of all elderly prisoners present with a mental illness.35 This is broadly comparable to rates of mental illness among older adults in the general population.

16.As a consequence of the greater prevalence of health issues and disability among the cohort, the health and social care needs of the older prisoner population are more extensive and complex than those of younger prisoners. According to the MOD: Older Prisoners the average older prisoner has six separate health or social care needs.36 The additional demands placed on prison health and social care is one of the major challenges created by an ageing prison population. The healthcare and social care of older prisoners will be examined fully in Chapter 5 of this report.

Backgrounds and behaviour

17.Evidence suggested that some aspects of older prisoners’ backgrounds and behaviour can differ from that associated with younger age groups, which may lead to them having different needs from the prison regime. For example, the Government’s SPCR survey found that older prisoners were more likely to report having higher qualifications, with around 17% of older prisoners reporting having a degree or diploma equivalent compared to 6% of younger prisoners. Older prisoners were also four times (12%) as likely to have reported completing an apprenticeship as younger prisoners (3%).37 The survey also found the older prisoners were less likely to report needing help with work-related skills or finding a job after release, though these findings may also have reflected that some older prisoners are near or over retirement age.38

18.Some evidence suggested that drug abuse is generally lower among older prisoners than in the prison population as a whole.39 This also emerged in the SPCR survey, for which 28% of older prisoners reported drug use before custody compared to 82% of prisoners under 50. However, drug abuse in prisons has risen in recent years,40 and Serco noted that they are starting to see a trend of increased drug and alcohol dependency among older prisoners.41

The ageing prison population

19.According to the MoJ’s most recent quarterly statistics, there were 5,176 people aged over 60 in prison in England and Wales, as of 31 March 2020.42 A further 8,588 prisoners were aged 50−59. These represent 6% and 10% of the prison population, respectively, which was 82,990 as of the same period. 1,790 prisoners were aged 70 or over. As of December 2016, 234 prisoners were aged 80 or over, with 14 in their 90s.43 Joint inspections by the Care Quality Commission and HM Chief Inspect of Prisons since 2015 have identified 15 prisons where 30% or more of the population are aged 50 or over. In four of these, 10% of prisoners were aged 70 or over.44

Figure 1: Different age groups of prisoners by numerical size

Source: Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly, March 2020

Notes: age groups combined

20.The older prison population has increased substantially over the last two decades. Between June 2002 (the point at which comparable records begin) and March 2020, the number of prisoners aged 60 and over increased by 243%, from 1,511 to 5,176.45 For the 50–59 age group, the increase was by 159%, from 3,313 to 8,588.46 The proportion of older prisoners has also increased: for those over 60, from 2% of the prison population in 2002 to 6% in 2020; and for those aged 50–59, from 4.5% to 10% in the same timeframe.47

21.This increase in the number of older prisoners has applied to both the male and female prison estates, though the size of the older female population is much smaller. The number of women aged 60 or over rose from 23 in 2002 to 131 in March 2020.48 The 50–59 age group also increased in number, from 155 to 409 in the same timeframe.49 The overall female population reduced by 18% in this period, from 4,394 to 3,623.50

Figure 2: Percentage change in prison population by age category, England and Wales

Sources: Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly, various years

Notes: Data at June 2002–2019 and March 2020; age groups combined

Why has the older prisoner population increased?

22.The increase of the older prisoner population has primarily been driven by a rise in the number of convictions for sexual offences.51 The number of prisoners serving sentences for these offences has risen substantially in the last two decades. There were 5,294 prisoners under immediate custodial sentence for sexual offences in 2002; by June 2019, it had risen to 13,196.52 As mentioned previously, older adults are more likely to be convicted for sexual offences than their younger counterparts and older prisoners are disproportionately represented among this offence group within the prison population.

23.Sentence inflation was also identified as a cause of the ageing prison population.53 According to the Prison Reform Trust, more than three times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more in the 12 months to June 2019 than in the same period as 2007. For more serious indictable offences, the average prison sentence is now 57.7 months, which is more than two years longer than in 2007.54 Average sentence lengths for sexual offences have increased in particular; given the high proportion of older prisoners convicted for sexual offences, this may have had a strong effect on the ageing of the prison population. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform:

Sentences for sexual offences have increased dramatically—the average sentence length for sexual offences increased to 61.4 months (more than five years) in 2018—16.9 months longer than a decade ago.55

24.This increase in the length of sentences, as well as the continued incarceration of some prisoners on indeterminate sentences, has meant that increasing numbers of middle-aged prisoners entering custody grow old while in prison.56

Future projections of the older prisoner population

25.The MoJ’s most recent prison population projection figures estimate that the population of offenders aged 60 or over will remain broadly constant between 2019 and 2023, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the overall prison population. The population of offenders aged 50−59 is estimated to decrease by around 11%.57 This predicted decline derives primarily from decreases in the number of people serving indeterminate sentences and a recent fall in the number of convictions for sexual offences.58

Table 1: Prison population aged over 50, 60 and 70 years old, June 2019 actuals and projected June 2020 to June 2023

Total prison population

50 to 59

60 to 69

70 and over

June 2019

82,676

8,532

3,321

1,756

June 2020

82,300

8,100

3,200

1,800

June 2021

81,200

7,900

3,100

1,700

June 2022

81,400

7,700

3,100

1,800

June 2023

81,700

7,600

3,100

1,800

Source: Ministry of Justice, Prison Population Projections 2019 to 2024, England and Wales, August 2019, page 11

26.However, these projections do not factor in the potential effects of proposed Government policies.59 In October 2019, the Government confirmed plans to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers over the next three years. Funding was announced to support the recruitment of the first wave of up to 6,000.60 It is possible that an increase in the number of police will lead to increased charge rates and more people being sent to prison. The degree to which this occurs will depend on whether, and if so by how much, the average number of charges per police officer (currently 3.3 per year) rises.61 In oral evidence, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer acknowledged that the older prison population was likely to rise with an increase in police numbers:

What we are anticipating is that the population as a whole will increase, and it is likely that the elderly population will increase comparatively with the population as a whole, but it will not increase out of step with the population as a whole.62

27.In addition, the Sentencing Bill, outlined in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech, proposes to change the automatic release point from half way to the two-thirds point for adult offenders sentenced for serious violent or sexual offences.63 This may well lead to an increase in the number of such offenders in prison. Draft secondary legislation changing the automatic release point to two-thirds of the sentence for offenders convicted of a relevant sexual offence for which the maximum penalty is life and sentenced to a standard determinate sentence of seven years or more, was laid before Parliament in October 2019.64 Justice Secretary Robert Buckland stated that the MoJ estimated that this would result in an additional 2,000 people being in prison by March 2030.65

28.At the very least, older prisoners will remain a significant proportion of the prison population. It is likely that the size of the cohort will rise further after increases in police numbers and changes to sentencing come into effect. It is important that the size of the older prisoner population can be predicted as accurately as possible, so the prison system can prepare and be resourced most appropriately. In its response to this report, the Government should publish updated projections for the ageing prison population for the next five years. These should factor in, as far as possible, the effects of its planned increases to police numbers and changes to sentencing policy.


4 Helen Codd, “Ageing in Prison”, in Sue Westwood (ed.), Ageing, Diversity and Equality, Social Justice Perspectives (London, 2018), p 345–346

5 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

6 Age UK (AGE0025); Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) (AGE0024); Care Quality Commission (AGE0038); Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England an (AGE0036)

7 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

8 Q2

9 Care Quality Commission (AGE0038)

10 Q2

11 Helen Codd, “Ageing in Prison”, in Sue Westwood (ed.), Ageing, Diversity and Equality, Social Justice Perspectives (London, 2018), p 346

12 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

13 Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) (AGE0024); Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England an (AGE0036)

15 Justice Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013–14, Older Prisoners, HC 89, 12 September 2013, para 27 and 135

17 G4S (AGE0037)

18 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

19 Offender Health Research Network, University of Manchester (AGE0030)

20 G4S (AGE0037)

21 Clinks and RECOOP (AGE0018)

22 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

23 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

24 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

25 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

26 Ministry of Justice, Proven reoffending statistics: January to March 2018, accessed 25 May 2020

27 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

28 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

29 Criminal Justice Alliance (AGE0020)

31 BMA (AGE0033)

33 Gov.UK, ‘Official Statistics, Disability facts and figures’, accessed 13 July 2020

35 British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (AGE0011)

36 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

39 Offender Health Research Network, University of Manchester (AGE0030); Women in Prison (AGE0027)

40 HM Prison and Probation Service, Prison drugs strategy (2019) p 3

41 Serco Ltd (AGE0028)

42 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the prison population in England and Wales fell substantially, from 82,990 as at 31 March to 79,605 as at 19 June (according to official MoJ Statistics). It is unclear at this stage what effect the lockdown has had on the older prison population specifically. As such, this section uses figures from just before the start of the pandemic.

43 Offender Health Research Network, University of Manchester (AGE0030)

44 Care Quality Commission (AGE0038)

45 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: January to March 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

46 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

47 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

48 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

49 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

50 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: October to December 2019, accessed 25 May 2020; Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: July to September 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

51 Ministry of Justice, Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS England and Improvement (AGE0036)

52 Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Statistics Quarterly: January to March 2019, accessed 25 May 2020

53 The Howard League for Penal Reform (AGE0013)

54 Prison Reform Trust, Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile Winter 2019, accessed 26 May 2020

55 The Howard League for Penal Reform (AGE0013)

56 Serco Ltd (AGE0028)

57 Ministry of Justice, Prison Population Projections 2019 to 2024, England and Wales (August 2019), p 11

58 Ministry of Justice, Prison Population Projections 2019 to 2024, England and Wales (August 2019), p 11

59 Ministry of Justice, Prison Population Projections 2019 to 2024, England and Wales, (August 2019), p 7

60 Home Office, “Home Office announces first wave of 20,000 police officer uplift”, accessed 26 May 2020

62 Q146 [Lucy Frazer]

63 Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, The Queen’s Speech December 2019: background briefing notes (December 2019), p 66

65 Oral evidence taken of 16 October 2019, HC (2019) 41, Q16




Published: 27 July 2020