Social care or systematic neglect
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.
Limited and inconsistent support to help sort out housing, employment, personal finances and debt, drug and alcohol dependence, and re-establish family relationships is also undermining the effective resettlement of older prisoners and increases the risk of future offending.
The report, Social care or systematic neglect?, calls for the creation of a cross-government national strategy for meeting the health, social and rehabilitative needs of older people in prison and on release in the community.
An aging prison population
People aged 60 and over are the fastest growing age group in the prison estate, with nearly three times as many in prison than 15 years ago. People aged 50 and over currently make up 14% of the prison population—some 12,335 people. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of older prisoners reported a mental health problem(s) and eight in 10 reported a serious illness or disability. Most will return to the community, but as the report shows, many struggle to cope with life outside.
A blunt indicator of the aging prison population is highlighted by the fact that in 2014, 107 people aged 50 or over died in prison of natural causes, an increase of nearly 50% in the last decade.
This research was designed to explore progress made, or otherwise, since serious concerns were raised in 2008 by a major research study conducted by the Prison Reform Trust and Restore into conditions for, and treatment of, older people in prison. At the time a number of older people in prison feared the prospect of isolation and lack of support in the community on release. One prisoner told researchers:
I committed my last offence to get back inside—I didn’t really do any crime—just couldn’t be bothered to turn up to see my probation officer, which I knew would get me recalled. Truth is I have no relations or friends on the outside and no interests—they’re all here. I have spent most of my life inside that by the time I was given my parole I had great difficulty surviving by myself. I was also getting so ill trying to cope…there wasn’t anybody there to support me. So now I’m in my 70s and back ‘home’ and this is where I’m going to die—not that I want to spend the end of my life in prison but what else is there for me?
The report is based on interviews conducted by Restore Support Network with 14 older people on the reality of their lives after prison. It draws on two focus groups, which gathered the views of a further 18 older offenders and a survey of five prisons in the East of England conducted by the Prison Reform Trust. The samples are comparatively small, and therefore all findings are indicative. However the study does provide important feedback on the implementation of the Care Act 2014 and, more broadly, the impact of changes and remaining gaps in resettlement provision on older age groups.
Key findings include:
- Nine of the 14 people interviewed felt that the prison had not adequately prepared them for release. Common concerns included delays, a lack of information, and a failure to arrange support for them after release.
- Nine of the 14 said they had social care needs; yet, only one of these said that they had received help from social services, and one other said this was ‘still in progress’.
- Thirteen of the 14 said that there had been no referral to a local GP surgery. One said: “I was released with no documentation. No one asked if I had a GP.”
- Nine of the 14 said they needed help with education, training or employment. Yet, only one person said that they had been given help. Many of the people interviewed felt training and employment (both in prison and after release) are targeted at young men.
- Thirteen of the 14 said that they felt stigmatised as a result of their offending history.
- Ten of the 14 said they felt socially isolated.
The report found that recent changes to probation services have created instability and led to concerns that the particular resettlement needs of older people are ignored in favour of more general provision. This is despite the introduction of the Care Act, which requires local authorities and prisons to work together to meet the social care needs of prisoners, with older people in prison entitled to the same quality of social care as they would obtain in the community.
The report also highlights the particular resettlement needs of sex offenders (42% of men in prison aged over 50 have been convicted of sex offences) with many talking about the discomfort, uncertainty and fears that being identified as a sex offender gave them.
Despite these challenges, the report also found evidence of some good practice; including two prisons working with the Ormiston Trust, to help maintain relationships with families whilst in custody; and the identification of people who had no family contact and their notification to the prison’s safer custody team.
The Prison Reform Trust has long campaigned for a strategy for older prisoners, a call endorsed by both the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Justice Committee. Juliet Lyon, the outgoing director of the Prison Reform Trust repeated this call in her comments on the report:
This report shows that for many older people in prison getting through their sentence is only the beginning. Poor health, no home or job, isolation and neglect paint a bleak picture on release. It’s clear that with such wide variation in standards of treatment, care and resettlement a national strategy is needed without further delay.