With so much focus being placed on young offenders and the poverty traps that keep them locked in a cycle of crime, little attention has been given to an ever increasing section of the national prison population. In England and Wales, male offenders aged 50 or above are the fastest growing group in prison, rising by 74% in the past decade to close to 10,000 (that’s 11% of the total prison population), while since 1990 the over-60s population has increasing eight-fold.
A succession of governments, wanting to appear ‘tough on crime’, have led to an increased pressure on the judicial system to hand out an increasing number of longer-term sentences. A rapidly aging long-term prison population now suffers from an accelerated aging process due to a combination of the health risks associated with criminal lifestyles and the psychological strains of prison life, which has led to more and more pressure being placed on correctional services that are now unable to cope with the changing nature of prison care for many inmates.
Among these unfamiliar healthcare challenges, dementia looms large. The lack of staff training and the difficulty in recognising early-warning signs in the regimented routine of prison life means that diagnosis is near impossible until the symptoms become severe. Moreover, with staff and management more likely to concentrate on the volatile younger populations there simply isn’t the resources to devote much attention to an “old and quiet” sub-section, posing little threat to security.
To combat this, several prisons in England had enlisted support from Recoop (a charity promoting the care of older offenders) to run weekly well-being clubs, an adapted version of the memory café initiative run in the community by the Alzheimer’s Society. Yet despite this drive most prisons it seems are acting as silos. In 2004 a report produced by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons recommended the development of a national strategy for older offenders, but at a time of service level cuts and deteriorating levels of staffing and morale prisons appear less and less able to prepare for a growing problem.
While the most obvious solution would be an overhaul of the judicial sentencing procedure, a more immediate solution is to tackle this issue head on before it become too great to deal with and leading to more people suffer needlessly. As a party we need a Federal policy for the provision of elderly prisoner care. It was Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons” – let’s remember prisoners are part of our society too.