Change needed to manage Scotland’s aging prison population

Written by Jenni Davidson on 26 July 2017 in News

A report from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons finds prisoners and staff facing challenges

Prison guard - Image credit: PA Images

Change is needed in Scotland’s prisons to deal with the issue of an increasing elderly prison population, according to a new report published today.

The number of older prisoners has risen significantly in the last few years particularly, due to the number of men being convicted of historic sex offences.

The report – Who Cares? The Lived Experience Of Older Prisoners In Scotland’s Prisons – by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons David Strang is based on questionaires and interviews with older prisoners and staff.

It is the first to look at the issue of elderly prisoners in Scotland, although similar research has taken place in other countries.


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The report identifies a number of issues, including isolation among older prisoners due to mobility difficulties or incontinence issues which may prevent them leaving their cell to go to the dining hall or getting involved with social activities.

The research found many prison staff are going the extra mile to take care of elderly prisoners, but in some cases are dealing with responsibilities well beyond their normal role, such as personal care and identifying signs of dementia.

Prison accommodation that is not designed the elderly in mind and staff who may not always have the awareness of the special needs of older men are among the issues to be resolved, the report found.

Among the examples given are a 72-year-old man who is sleeping in a top bunk, because his cellmate is even less mobile than he is, and another, a wheelchair user, whose cell door is too narrow for the wheelchair, meaning he has to get help to fold it in the doorway before getting back in inside the cell.

Another prisoner, who suffers from incontinence, cried as he told researchers how he soiled himself when he was taken on a court visit and refused quick access to a toilet.

Strang makes a number of recommendations, including that the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Government work together to produce a strategy for dealing with Scotland’s aging population.

He also recommends that accommodation and activities available to prisoners should be based on their health and social care needs and that older prisoners should have a health and social care plan that goes with them if they move to a different prison.

Strang also calls for prisoners to be supported to have contact with their families.

Commenting on the report, Strang said: “Too many older people in our prisons are not having their needs met in a satisfactory way. 

"The report contains distressing details of the treatment of some older prisoners, especially when they were out of prison either at court or at hospital.

“During our research, we heard positive accounts of how some older prisoners felt well looked after by prison officers and staff who demonstrated kindness and compassion. 

“But for many, their accommodation was unsuitable. 

“We interviewed one man in his 70s who had to sleep on the top bunk of his bed in the cell he shared with a less able prisoner.

“Older prisoners told us that they were not able to take part in activities because of their difficulty in walking distances. 

“Many expressed their fears of growing old in prison and the possibility of dying alone. There is a clear need for such basics of life as suitable activities and social contact.

“I hope that this report will lead to effective change in the treatment of older prisoners in Scotland.”

The Liberal Democrats have also called for changes to be made in light of the report.

Lib Dem justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said: “With the number of over-60s in prison increasing by a fifth last year alone, a new strategy is certainly needed to cope with the complexities that come with an ageing prison population.

“Changes will need to be made to the prison estate, training and procedures as staff contend with more and more people in their sixties, seventies and eighties. 

“The challenge of dealing with more older prisoners also adds weight to the need for a culture shift across our justice system.

“For example, we need a new presumption against ineffective sentences of less than 12 months.

“Giving more people robust community sentences instead would allow staff greater time to deal with those older people for whom prison is the only option.”

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