Source — The GuardianRead country-profile
United Kingdom: 'buried alive': the old men stuck in Britain’s prisons
Dave was 13 when he got his first custodial sentence. It was 1962 and he had been caught stealing from cars. That sentence was followed by others: he can’t quite remember how many. Gamely, he tried to count them: “I think it was 14 or 15,” he finally offered. He wasn’t always put away – at least seven times, he was given a suspended sentence. Three months ago, he left prison for what he swears was the last time, after serving 14 years of a life sentence. Today, he’s an old man. At 68, he spoke to me with as much urgency as his weak heart will allow, squeezing volleys of words in short bursts of breath before wheezing to a stop. He apologised for interrupting, and checked himself when he slipped into the subservient prison habit of addressing me as “Miss”.
In 1974, he was arrested for violent disorder. He was 25; one of the lads. It was his first time in an adult prison. “Prison was a place for young men: we were all in it together, you know?” he said. “There were some older prisoners, but not many. And ‘older’ meant someone in their 50s and 60s then: there were no really old men on the wings. Not like now.”
Dave had a hard childhood and left school without learning to read or write. He couldn’t get a driving licence. A back injury on a building site in his 20s meant he couldn’t do heavy work. He went on to commit a series of crimes that escalated in seriousness until he was arrested for possession of a firearm with criminal intent, and in 2003, he was sentenced to life. “My God, prison has changed since [my first time],” he said. “There are loads of prisoners now who are my age and even older. I use walking sticks myself and have bad health, but there were loads of blokes there in a far worse state than me.”
As he got older, prison time got harder. He suffered mentally from the heavy realisation that he had wasted his life. It was physically brutal, too: he said younger inmates call older men like him paedophiles; he was beaten up, and had his cell set alight and his possessions burnt. Too weak to manage the stairs and unable to get one of the few cells on the ground floor – there were too many frail, older prisoners vying for them – he would spend day after day on his bed, watching TV. The hour allotted for exercise would be used up in the time it took him to get down the stairs to the yard, so he stopped trying.
One of Dave’s friends, like him, had a bad heart. When the man was dying, he was refused compassionate release. He was judged a security risk, even at the point of death. Prison doctors got a special bed moved into his cell, and his friends were allowed to sit with him and help turn him, or give him water. “He died a few days later,” Dave recalled. “He was past caring where he was, but we all felt it was brutal, dying in your cell. Like an animal. I’ve seen it happen a few times now, and I never got used to it.”
The prison population is getting old. In the last 15 years, the number of prisoners over the age of 60 has tripled. The rate of octogenarians serving time has almost doubled in the last two years, and there are now a dozen inmates in their 90s. There’s even one of 101. Incarceration in old age brings its own particular punishments. There are inmates with dementia who don’t know they are in prison, or how they got there. Sick and dying elderly men are taken to hospital in shackles, chained to prison officers. Terminally ill prisoners are kept waiting so long for compassionate release that they die in their cells before they get an answer.
A combination of harsh sentencing policies and an ageing population has produced a startling effect: prisons are now the UK’s largest provider of residential care for frail, elderly men. Prisons have adjusted to this new role in a disorganised fashion, with inadequately trained officers struggling to cope with limited resources in buildings designed to hold healthy young men.
The vast majority of prisons in England and Wales were built in the Victorian era. These buildings have long corridors, lots of stairs, and bathrooms and doorways too narrow to admit wheelchairs, which means disabled inmates need assistance to get from their cell door to their bed. For those who cannot walk without assistance, or who are at risk of falling, taking a shower can be dangerous. One 75-year-old, who was released a few months ago after a 15-year sentence, has to use a walking frame. “I couldn’t have showers because I was terrified of slipping,” he told me. “There was a step to get into the shower, which I couldn’t manage – but even if I could have, there was nothing to hold on to inside the shower, and I’m just not that stable. I ended up not washing for weeks on end. Towards the end of my sentence, I had started to wet myself a bit, too. I told an officer but he just laughed and said it happens to us all as we age, so I often ended up trapped in my cell, dirty and smelly.”
One prisoner who served 30 years of a life sentence was released last month aged 67. In recent years he has used a wheelchair and rarely left his cell; he was dependent on friends to help him in and out of the wheelchair, and to bring him food at mealtimes. “It was like being buried alive,” he told me.
Like many of the older prisoners who couldn’t move around freely, he was unable to attend the classes he needed in order to get parole, which stretched out his prison stay even further. The important courses are oversubscribed, and the younger prisoners are better at getting signed up because they’re out and about in the prison. “They know who to talk to to get their names on the list,” he said. “We older prisoners are too timid and keep to our cells too much to elbow our way on to these courses. We just rot away in there.”
These inmates’ offences are no less serious for the fact that they are old, and some of them are still capable of reoffending. But for elderly people, prison time is harder to bear than it is for younger, fitter men. Many report bullying, abuse, loneliness and isolation. They are quieter and less violent than other inmates, so tend to be forgotten. And yet the fallout of an ageing prison population is becoming impossible to ignore. With limited resources for rehabilitation and very few suitable hostels in the community, the prison system’s new role as provider of residential care for elderly men is creating a new problem: it’s getting harder to let them out.
Although many voices on the right tend to rise in dismay at any sign of leniency from the penal system, it is difficult to see how prison is an appropriate place to hold someone with dementia. People who live with the condition are prone to anxiety and confusion, and their symptoms are particularly harsh in a setting where they are required to snap to attention, compete for resources and stick to a routine. There can be little justification for keeping someone who barely knows where he is, and is incapable of fulfilling the requirements for release, in an expensive, overcrowded, high-security prison.
Caring for inmates with dementia can be distressing for officers, as well as fellow prisoners. One officer, who asked to remain anonymous, had such a prisoner on his wing. Overnight, every night, the prisoner would forget that he was guilty of any crime and wake, expecting to be in his own bed, at home. Every morning, the officer had to allocate extra time to gently break the news to him yet again that he was in prison, why and for how long. It was, the officer said, deeply upsetting – not just for the prisoner, but for him, too. “Of course this prisoner should be punished for his crime,” the officer said. “But his condition meant his punishment was many times worse than a prisoner without dementia. I ended up feeling that he was going through something closer to torture than to civilised punishment. It didn’t seem humane and it didn’t seem fair.”
If someone with dementia doesn’t know they are being punished, keeping them in prison seems pointless. Nick Hardwick is the chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales; before this, between 2010 and 2016, he was the chief inspector of prisons. During one inspection, he met an elderly sex offender with dementia who wasn’t clear where he was, or that he was even in prison. He had been allocated another prisoner as a carer. “He was one of few groups of older prisoners for whom you can say that being in prison is better than being on the outside,” said Hardwick. “He had his basic needs met and had some companionship. Outside, he’d be on his own, deserted by family, and not receiving day-to-day help. But he didn’t really know he was in prison, so whether that’s an appropriate use of prison places, I don’t know.”
There are prisons that have tried to accommodate prisoners with dementia. HMP Whatton, in Nottinghamshire, has a dementia-friendly cell with a large clock and clear signs – but one cell is barely a start in providing real answers. The Mental Health Foundation has estimated the number of dementia sufferers at approximately 5% of prisoners over 55 years old. As dementia afflicts an ever-growing number of the population at large, the number of inmates with the disease is expected to reach 700 by 2020.
A more visible sign that prisons are unfit places for older people is the shackling of frail and terminally ill patients when they are taken for hospital visits. On leaving prison for medical treatment, however ill, prisoners are chained to officers. Their flight risk is, in many cases, calculated when they first arrive in prison – and if they can no longer walk unaided, that changes nothing. For the prison ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, this has become a personal campaign. Harrowing accounts of mistreatment and deaths in custody are part of a day’s work for Newcomen, but the inhumane and degrading treatment endured by older inmates in Britain still shock him. Today, he publishes a report entirely dedicated to the treatment of the old in prison.
Because Newcomen’s work is sensitive, the address of his office isn’t in the public domain. I was sworn to secrecy when our meeting was arranged. When I arrived, I had to pass through layers of security before being ushered into a dark, impersonal office. Slowly tearing himself away from his computer, Newcomen, who is in his early 60s, sat at a bare table, sighed, sagged, and then pulled himself tall in his chair.
“I get very excitable when terminally ill prisoners who are immobile are restrained as though they’re fit, young, highly-dangerous prisoners,” he said. “I think it’s unacceptable and I think most prison staff and prison managers think it’s unacceptable that they have people dying at the end of chains, and staff traumatised by what they’re having to put up with.”
Newcomen’s report describes an elderly prisoner referred to only as Mr E. A low-risk prisoner, Mr E was back in prison after breaching the terms of his parole. He was suffering from a very painful but non-life-threatening autoimmune disease for which he had to attend hospital. He was covered in weeping sores and was shedding skin. Despite having been assessed as a low security risk and despite his medical condition, he was kept on an escort chain – a long chain with a cuff at either end, one of which is attached to the wrist of the prisoner, and the other to a prison officer – the entire time he was outside prison, except when he was actually receiving medical treatment. The cuff was causing him pain, and gave him blisters that had to be bandaged by hospital staff.
At one point, Mr E asked to use the toilet and did so, still chained to the escort officer. While he was in the bathroom, Mr E collapsed. He had suffered a pulmonary embolism. He was chained to the escort officer at the time of his death.
“It’s hard to understand how someone can be subjected to restraints that are clearly unnecessary and inappropriate,” Newcomen said. “But the case of Mr E is neither unique nor extreme.”
There has been a sharp drop in the number of prisoners released to die outside prison: compassionate release can only be granted by the secretary of state for justice, and there is an increasing reluctance to attract popular ire for releasing high-profile offenders. There was a row recently over speculation that Moors murderer Ian Brady was going to be released before he died. In 2009, there was outrage when the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, was released to die in hospital from pneumonia after a series of strokes. He eventually died in 2013. Also in 2009, there was similar fury when the man accused of the Lockerbie bombing, 57-year-old Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi, was released to die of cancer. He, too, lived on for nearly three years.
A recent study by the ombudsman’s office found that 78 prisoners applied for compassionate release last year, but only 13 of these requests were granted. Twenty-six prisoners, on the other hand, died before a decision had been made – usually because of delays caused by a poor and disorganised application process. One elderly man died three minutes after his application for compassionate release was finally granted, after being repeatedly held up.
Added to the prisons’ new function as care homes for elderly people, is another role: hospices for the dying. But amid the noise and stench of prison life, staff are hard-pressed to offer a dying man dignity or peace.
When Jimmy Savile died at 85, a free man, in his own bed, after years of raping children and hospital patients, most people could agree that victims of sexual abuse need to see justice done, whatever age their attacker is now. Police launched the Operation Yewtree inquiry in October 2012, to encourage victims of Savile and other celebrities to report sexual offences. Yewtree’s horrifying revelations of widespread sexual abuse led to a change in the way all alleged victims were treated by police, and a sharp increase in successful prosecutions. Sex offenders now make up more than half of older prisoners.
Gaston Pinsard was 96 when he was given an 18-month sentence in 2015 for sexually abusing two schoolgirls more than 50 years earlier. Britain’s oldest prisoner, at 101, is Ralph Clarke from Birmingham, an ex-RAF serviceman and lorry driver sentenced in December last year to a 13-year term for child sex attacks – the last of which he committed aged 68.
While there comes a point when a prisoner’s age starts to diminish his capacity to commit a crime, clearly there are cases where it would be a terrible error to mistake an older prisoner for a harmless one. Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, told me about a 94-year-old he met in an open prison who was taken out for a medical appointment. “As soon as he got to the hospital, he indecently assaulted a female member of staff,” he said. Then, remembering back to his days in the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s and 80s, he added: “There are some very dangerous and manipulative people who need to be held in secure conditions. The oldest man I’ve arrested was 85 – he was still grooming girls in east London.”
Clarke is a quietly forceful man whose remote manner belies his inner steel. On the top floor of an enormous and unprepossessing office block, buffeted by the constant thunder of central London traffic, he explained that, although the number of older people in prison is growing because of the prosecution of historic sex offences, that’s not the whole story. The “grey crime wave” was probably predictable, simply because all of us are living longer, so there are more old people to commit crimes.
Britain now has the most punitive system in western Europe. Over the past decade, the police have recorded fewer crimes and the courts have prosecuted and convicted fewer defendants. But those who are found guilty of any crime – from burglary and fraud to sexual offences and murder – are more likely to get a prison sentence in Britain today than they were a decade ago. British politicians love to equate the falling crime rate with increased sentences – despite research that demonstrates the opposite is true. They crow about delivering tougher and swifter justice, thereby protecting victims and communities, which is a favourite theme of the rightwing press.
Since 2012, mandatory life sentences have been introduced for those convicted of a second serious sexual assault, and harsher sentences have been handed down for drug trafficking. The average minimum term for murder was 12-and-a-half years in 2003, but had risen to 21 years by 2013. Politicians claim these statistics as a success, but critics believe that it is a fantasy to think that prisons can be meaningful places of reform and rehabilitation.
A major factor contributing to prisoners getting stuck in the system into old age is the use of imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPPs). These controversial, open-ended jail terms were introduced in 2005 by the then-Labour government in response to the public outcry over the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a convicted sex offender who had been released from prison early. Inmates given an ordinary sentence serve half their time in custody and half on licence. IPP prisoners, however, have to stay in prison until they can prove to the parole board that they will never commit another crime of any sort.
This burden of proof has significantly contributed to prison overcrowding: initially targeted at fewer than 1,000 serious offenders, the IPP system was then used to sentence about 6,000 people, many for minor crimes. The new sentencing system was scrapped in 2012, but the abolition was not applied retrospectively. Eighty-one per cent of the 4,133 prisoners currently serving an IPP sentence have passed their tariff date (the minimum prison sentence set by a judge) and about 400 have served five times that minimum.
Around 634 IPP prisoners are still incarcerated, despite being given tariffs of less than two years. IPP prisoners who were originally sentenced to a six-month tariff can still be in prison 10 years later, and the longer they remain in prison, the harder it is to get out. For an increasing number of older inmates, the only way out is to die – the number of deaths from natural causes in prison has doubled in a decade. Those who do get released often know no one and have nowhere to go. This can result in the cruellest irony of all: prisoners begging to come back to prison to die.
Nick Hardwick, who is now chair of the parole board, told me of one such case. “I know some older prisoners who it would be cruel to release into the community to die because everyone they know is in prison. The most extreme example of this is one man I knew of who was released back into prison to die. He’d been in prison a long time and, when he knew his time was very close, said he wanted to return to prison. The message was relayed to the prison governor, who asked around and found they did have a space in their palliative care suite. The man was bought back into the prison and he was dead in two or three days.”
What kind of society confines frail, elderly people to prison? Many countries take the view that keeping older people in jail is not appropriate. In Russia, the courts will not issue a life sentence to anyone over 60. Spanish prisons release inmates as a matter of course when they reach 80. The state of Louisiana recently passed a law to make it easier for non-violent prisoners over 60 to obtain parole hearings.
Even though it is a poor reflection of any society to keep old and dying prisoners locked up, there is limited energy for this cause. Punishing cuts to social care for elderly people, and to health and education, have meant there is little enthusiasm for spending scarce resources on older prisoners. At the same time, the rightwing press is vigilant for any sign of leniency towards men convicted of appalling crimes, whatever the offender’s state of health.
Where overstretched prison staff are dealing with violence, rioting and suicides, intervention on behalf of elderly people is not a priority. Frankly, it is easier to forget about them. Since Nigel Newcomen took up his role of ombudsman in 2011, his office has revealed numerous cases of unacceptable treatment of elderly and dying people in prison, which have been repeatedly ignored. “These are not necessarily particularly challenging prisoners to manage,” Newcomen said, “apart from the demands they put on healthcare … They’re not rioting, after all, they’re the quiet ones.”
The quiet ones are also sometimes the hardest to set free. At the end of their sentences, Nick Hardwick told me, most prisoners are released into supervised halfway houses or secure hostels, but he admitted that these are not generally suitable places for older people. (Dave described a hostel where the young men would take drugs and get drunk and smash the place up, and bully him to hand over his pension. Harried and unable to deal with the noise, he would shut himself in his room – it was just like prison.) The truth, Hardwick said – his head in his hands – is that a lot of older prisoners are only in custody because there is nowhere else suitable to send them: “It’s the prison service’s equivalent of NHS bed-blocking.”
The “bed-blocking” effect is exacerbated by the difficulty older prisoners have in satisfying conditions made by the parole board. One prisoner was told he wouldn’t be considered for release until he had found supervised work. “Who’s going to employ me?” he said. “I’m three years away from my bus pass.”
Nigel Newcomen has, he said, been “banging on about this issue” for years, with no response from the government. “It’s galling,” he admitted, “to have to say this same thing many, many times, but maybe that’s my role in life.” Clarke, Hardwick and Newcomen have all publicly called for action on this matter, as have the Prison Reform Trust and the justice select committee.
Left to themselves, prisons are tending to take the least costly and bothersome approach. They do what they can, but it’s not enough. They need a requirement to act – a set of rules for minimum standards of care. But the Ministry of Justice has repeatedly rejected this idea, saying the needs of older prisoners are too wide to generalise, and that they should receive help based on their individual needs. This means, in effect, no plan to do anything.
Hardwick finds this response maddeningly short-sighted. “It’s not complicated,” he said, his voice ringing with frustration. “We can project the growth of the elderly prison population – a lot of those people are in prison already, and we know how long their sentences are – and estimate what their care needs are likely to be, both in prison and outside, when they will be released on licence and need supervision in the community. It’s not complicated, but it is important.”
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