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Prison is no place for old men
Louise Ridley with an in-depth look at our ageing prison population in the latest addition to Clinks evidence library.

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The rising number of older men in prison

Last Friday (24 February 2023) Clinks published the latest article in its online evidence library that I am lucky enough to curate. The evidence library was created to develop a far-reaching and accessible evidence base covering the most common types of activity undertaken within the criminal justice system.

The latest addition has been written by Louise Ridley and  takes an in-depth look at the issues and challenges of our ageing prison population. Ms Ridley, senior lecturer in Criminology at Northumbria University, reviews the current evidence base – to which she is an important contributor – and covers a number of key issues including:

  • The disproportionate growth in the number of older people in prison
  • The challenges to the prison system to provide the same level of care to this group
  • The lack of a coherent strategy and the consequences of limited responses to the needs of older people in prison
  • The ways in which some prisons have adapted to the challenges of caring for so many people with chronic health and social care needs

She also reviews the important role played by voluntary organisations, working collaboratively in prisons and improving the quality of life experienced by older people in prison.

The impact of prison on older men

More people are now dying within our prisons of natural causes. In 2020, 184 people aged 50 or over died of natural causes, more than twice the number of ten years ago. It is estimated that as many as 85% of the current older population in prison in England and Wales have some sort of major health condition. Evidence indicates that many prisoners with mobility issues have been unable to look after themselves or their cells, and some are without access to showers. This issue was exacerbated by the restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Older people in prison are much more likely to suffer from chronic disease, disability, decreased mobility, and sensory impairment than other prisoners. Many elderly prisoners are entering prison for the first time, an experience that can be traumatic and cause much greater psychological shock than for younger and/or more regular prison attendees.

The standard design of our prisons makes it difficult for older, less mobile people to navigate the narrow corridors and wings. Those who suffer with declining mobility or who may be experiencing cognitive problems, such as dementia, can find the prison environment both challenging and intimidating. 

Without reasonable adjustments in place, and these adjustments are patchy at best across the prison estate, it can become impossible for older prisoners to participate in regimes and receive the right sort of health care. This can result in further isolation for older prisoners as they may find themselves in health care away from others who can offer that informal support, vital to the well-being of any prisoner, but evidence suggests even more so for the older prisoner.

Release planning

Release planning for older people in prison is often non-existent, causing elevated levels of anxiety and uncertainty for those being released, many of whom cannot return to their family homes or locality. As the current prison population ages, there is a risk that very old men, will become further excluded with little or no prospect of successful reintegration into society without vast cost to already stretched social care providers.


The growth in the older prison population has created challenges and dilemmas for the prison system. Without a national strategy to guide both practitioners and prisons, responses have been piecemeal and do not appear to have fully addressed these challenges and dilemmas.

There are however examples of successful collaborations between the voluntary sector including, in particular,  RECOOP, Age UK and the Salvation Army, and prisons who together are making a difference to the lives of older men in prison.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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