By Kelvin Robbins
This post is adapted from a November 2017 postgraduate student paper. It was originally published on the Canterbury Christ Church University Policing and Criminal Justice blog.
There is little consensus on what constitutes an elderly prisoner. The definition of “elderly” in prison research literature ranges from 50 to 65 and older. This lack of clarity in defining "elderly" is an issue. Whilst age provides a simple measure of chronological progress since birth, it is a poor measure of life stage and ability. Therefore, allocating resources on the basis of chronological age could give unnecessary benefit to some and disadvantage others, and it makes meaningful comparison difficult for researchers as well as for policy makers.
Matters are further complicated in that there is some evidence that physiological deterioration is more advanced in an inmate compared to a person based out in the community, and this is put forward as an argument that incarceration accelerates the ageing process. However, this can’t apply to an elderly person committed to prison for the first time.
Overall, there is no clear chronological point a person becomes “elderly” in the criminal justice system. Perhaps it is unsurprising that defining the elderly in a prison context was identified as a top priority in developing national US policy in 2012.
Reviewing the literature relating to the imprisonment of the elderly reveals a number of clear themes. Firstly, society predominantly associates criminal behaviour with youth. It is described as a young man’s game, with prisons designed around fit young men, not for those with deteriorating health and physical ability. Prisons are institutionally geared towards smooth running and self-maintenance. This lack of consideration, or “institutional thoughtlessness” results in elderly prisoners being invisible in policy.
Expecting elderly prisoners to follow the same rules as younger prisoners could even be described as discrimination. For example, withdrawing access to media has been found to be more impactive on the elderly. Elderly female prisoners, as a minority within a minority, suffer more from this institutional thoughtlessness. Elderly female prisoners are described as forgotten, but some go further in describing a “pattern of malign neglect” in programmes and policies.
Another key theme is dementia. Prison systems are unprepared to handle this condition, as are earlier stages of the criminal justice system. Research indicates dementia can be devastating if undiagnosed in a correctional setting, but there is a lack of data about its prevalence in prison. Evidence shows younger adult prisoners are more likely to have chronic illnesses and psychiatric illness, so elderly prison populations may be more likely to suffer dementia. Certainly, healthcare planning for elderly prisoners cannot be extrapolated from estimates based on elderly based out in the community.
A third theme is the cost of elderly prisoners, disproportionately higher for elderly prisoners compared to their younger inmates. Financial issues seem to feature more in American literature, as responsibility to provide healthcare for inmates moves from the individual to the state for incarcerated persons in the USA, but there is also increased financial burden associated with elderly inmates in the UK.
Elderly prison populations are rising. Prison populations globally have grown, and within this there is a sustained surge of elderly prisoners, who are the fastest growing subgroup of prisoners. However, there is no clear consensus as to why. Some academics argue it is simply reflective of the increasing proportion of the elderly in wider populations, but this is dismissed by others. A potential reason may be the increasing length of sentences, yet as long ago as 1984 41% of prisoners were over 55 at their first committal to prison, and other schools of thought consider sentence length as a marginal contributor to increasing elderly prison populations.
UK courts have become increasingly preoccupied with retribution and risk, and there may be a societal shift to incapacitation models of crime control rather than rehabilitative approaches. There is also a greater readiness to prosecute historic offences, particularly sexual offences. This rise in elderly prisoners has led to established criminological theory of criminal involvement declining with age being questioned and re-examined.
In response to the rise in elderly prisoners, there are calls for sentencing reform. The established rationales for imprisonment are stretched to breaking point with the elderly. Sentencing guidelines underestimate the impact of imprisonment upon the elderly, and evidence suggests they are much less likely to reoffend. A key call is for Alzheimer’s screening or functionality tests for prisoners, but prison environment based functionality assessments must be developed as existing community based ones cannot easily translate into prison settings.
Whilst there has been good work by non-governmental organisations responding to elderly prisoners, action by responsible authorities lacks consistency with only pockets of good practice. Most positive approaches identified are due to individual improvisations by prison staff. The Prison Ombudsman has called for a national elderly prisoner strategy in 2017, repeating the little heard concern of the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2008.
To conclude, elderly prisoners are a global, cross-discipline issue. Research and concern spans legal, nursing, geriatric, mental health, sociological, and criminal justice literature. National level responses are beginning to emerge, but a clear consistent theme across all the research disciplines is that research is too sparse, and whilst pockets of good practice exist, national policy is inadequate, if it exists at all.