Shine A Light

Dying Inside: the UK needs a national strategy for older prisoners

A documentary-maker explores the experience of male older prisoners.

Rex Bloomstein
13 January 2012

My interest in crime and punishment has been one of the three major themes that have come to dominate my career as a documentary filmmaker, the others being human rights and the Holocaust. I have returned time and again to them.

Dying Inside, an examination of the older prisoner which was aired this week on Radio 4, is the latest of my explorations and my first radio programme. The experience was as painful and puzzling as I have witnessed — to see old and frail men in conditions so obviously unsuited for the elderly, to see prison staff having to deal with this and doing their best, to hear yet more stories of the prison jungle but this time from the frightening perspective of old age. To interview a man seven years younger than me (I’m 70) who looked twenty years older. 

One of the more extraordinary aspects of this story is that over 40 per cent of male older prisoners have been convicted of sexual offences. An increasing number of them committed their crimes many years ago but have been caught by advances in DNA techniques. This is revealed particularly in the testimony of Daniel and Gerry in the programme who are interviewed in HMP Maidstone, and HMP Whatton, two of the three prisons the prison service steered me towards.

I also spoke to prisoners with very serious health problems and who are facing the possibility of dying in prison in the Elderly Lifer Unit at HMP Norwich, the first time in its history that anyone from media has been allowed in. Talking with Tommy and Jimmy whose interviews end the programme, as well as staff, became an intensely moving experience. These are stories of wasted lives, of compulsions unheeded, of tragic acts and moments of violence.

I came to explore these hitherto closed societies that lie behind the walls of our prisons in the seventies and early eighties with  films such as ‘The Sentence’, ‘Release’, ‘Prisoners’ Wives’, ‘Parole’,  ‘Strangeways’, and  ‘Lifers’ for Thames Television.   In 2001 BBC2’s Timewatch commissioned ‘Strangeways Re-Visited’. Inspired by this experience, I made ‘Lifer – Living With Murder' revealing what had happened to some of the life sentence prisoners filmed twenty years previously. This was followed in 2005, by, 'Kids Behind Bars'.   

All these films have tried to understand more about men and women condemned to imprisonment and the institutions that house and contain them.  What effect, what light, might they cast?  Some of these studies are now, in a sense, pieces of history reflecting aspects of prison conditions and criminal justice that no longer exist. What remains unchanging are the ever present themes of violence, drugs, criminal subcultures, the need for work, illiteracy, alcohol abuse, mental illness; the choice to become a criminal or to stop being one.

So it was that a recent Report by the Prison Reform Trust, of which I am a trustee, alerted me to the world of the older prisoner. A world again virtually unrecognized publicly outside of those working within the prison system and its administration, health authorities, some NGO’s and academics dealing with the range of problems that older prisoners face and the impact on the prisons they are in.

Here are some of the facts revealed in the Report.

On 31 March 2011, there were 8,804 prisoners aged 50 and over in England and Wales, including 2,975 aged 60 and over. This group makes up 10 per cent of the total prison population. Prisoners aged over 60 are the fastest growing age group in prison. The oldest person is 92 and the oldest person in my programme 83 – there are almost 50 people over 80. Getting on for a 100 people died in prison of natural causes in 2010.

Prison Reform Trust interviewers found that older prisoners experience a range of problems regarding daily living. Standards of accommodation services and care for particularly frail and ill prisoners fell far short of the standards for care homes. More generally, services for older people did not meet those that would be available in the community. They noted that significant improvements would require active partnerships between the Prison Service and local health and social services department authorities.

The key point however is that so far there is no national strategy for older prisoners – prisons cope as best they can.  It should be said there is evidence of much good work and care and compassion amongst certain prisons. Though virtually all the older prisoners featured in Dying Inside spoke of abuse from other prisoners, isolation and fear in local prisons where they were held before moving on. 

We are not dealing here with a grey crime wave. This increase, which will become devastating in its impact on resources for the prison service, is mainly due to sentences becoming harsher and longer — with the number of older prisoners continuing to increase unless there are major changes in sentencing trends.

The Prison Reform Trust, along with HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons, Age UK and other organizations has called for a national strategy for work with older people in prison. I’m informed that The National Offender Management Service and the Department of Health are assessing the possibility of a national allocations strategy for people with significant social care needs.  I hope the programme adds impetus to this.

Dying Inside will be broadcast again on BBC Radio 4, Sunday 15th January at 5pm. Or try Listen Again until Tuesday 17th January, or download podcast here.

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