MORE and more men who are elderly, frail and unwell are being jailed in the UK, serving time in prisons that are ill-equipped to cope with their health problems. Some prisoners are in their 70s, 80s or older and whatever their actual sentence, they are effectively serving life terms because of the likelihood they will die before being released.

This means that older prisoners face a “double burden”, according to a research project headed by an academic at the University of Huddersfield. In addition to the prospect of dying in prison, these men find themselves in harsh environments that engender mental and physical suffering, including intimidation from younger inmates.

“Part of the problem is that a high proportion of older prisoners are sex offenders,” explains Dr Mary Turner, who is a Reader in Health Services Research at the University’s School of Human and Health Sciences.  “This raises particular issues around compassionate release because these offenders are extremely unpopular - the most vilified of prisoners.

“They are being imprisoned in their 60s, 70s and 80s for crimes committed when they were in their 40s, for example, and the older you get the more complex your health and social care needs.” 

Dr Turner and her colleagues Marian Peacock, Sheila Payne, Andrew Fletcher, and Katherine Froggatt – who blame “neo-liberal” penal policies for the general rise in jail populations in countries such as the UK and the USA - have carried out detailed research into the experiences of older prisoners.

They have published an article that describes their findings and lists their recommendations, which include the need to develop and evaluate effective interventions, such as special units for older inmates or community-based solutions for prisoners “who need care more than they need punishment”.

England and Wales have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, states the article. In addition, the number of over-60 prisoners has tripled since 2003 and there are increasing numbers of inmates aged 85 or above. Unsurprisingly, these figures have helped to create big rises in the number of deaths in custody.

Some jails have installed special suites for terminally-ill prisoners, and it was Dr Turner’s speciality in palliative care that resulted in an initial research project at Lancaster University, investigating end-of-life care at prisons in North West England.

“The number of over-60 prisoners has tripled since 2003 and there are increasing numbers of inmates aged 85 or above. Unsurprisingly, these figures have helped to create big rises in the number of deaths in custody.” 

Some complex issues were uncovered, said Dr Turner, and interest in the findings generated further research, including a three-year collaborative project that attracted funding from the Marie Curie charity, with the aim of improving palliative care in prisons.

The recent article, “Ageing and dying in the contemporary neoliberal prison system: Exploring the ‘double burden’ for older prisoners”, in the journal Social Science & Medicine, is one of the outputs from this and it describes how the researchers interviewed a wide range of parties – including prisoners, prison officers and nurses – at HMP Wymott in Lancashire, which has created a special unit for older prisoners.

“A lot more work needs to be done. We have just uncovered the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr Turner. She and her collaborators now plan further research, investigating issues such as the disparity between health care available to prisoners and to the general population.