A piece in today’s Times by Chris Smyth, Health Editor:
Elderly inmates could be let out early to relieve pressure on overcrowded prisons under plans being considered by ministers.
Moving the oldest prisoners to secure care homes is being looked at in an attempt to deal with the rising cost of looking after them.
Criminals with mobility difficulties or severe health problems are considered less likely to escape or reoffend but keeping them locked up is extremely costly for a short-staffed prison system. Prisoners over the age of 60 cost three time as much as younger inmates to accommodate because they have health problems that Britain’s Victorian jails struggle to deal with.
The number of older inmates has tripled in the past decade and prisons have had to install stairlifts and grab-rails to cope. The drive to prosecute past sex offences has led to an influx of extremely old prisoners, including Ralph Clarke, who is 101 and was jailed a year ago for sexually abusing children.
Hundreds of prisoners are now estimated to have dementia, including some who are said to be unaware that they are in prison.
Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, proposed sending older inmates to “care homes with walls” to ease the pressure on jails. David Lidington, the justice secretary, is believed to back the idea and is now considering whether it should be implemented nationally. He briefed his cabinet colleagues in November on the need to adapt to the growing problem of elderly prisoners.
A source told the Sun: “These prisoners are so old they are very unlikely to commit another offence. So you have to ask yourself, is jail the best place for them? We’re not talking about an early end to their sentence, but placing them somewhere where there is specialist help.”
Any suggestion of softness on criminals risks a backlash from the Conservative right, but the idea of freeing elderly prisoners was advocated last year by the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank founded by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.
Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “People have the right to expect justice to be done. But many are living out their old age in conditions that demean both them and us. A just system tempers retribution with mercy, and we need to ask ourselves if we are getting that balance right.”
About 80 per cent of older prisoners have a chronic illness and watchdogs have repeatedly raised the alarm about their treatment in institutions designed for fit young men. Nigel Newcomen, the prisons ombudsman, said in June that older convicts were dying while shackled to warders. “There has been little strategic grip of this sharp demographic change. Prisons and their healthcare partners have been left to respond in a piecemeal fashion,” he said.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We need a prison system which is equipped to manage offenders in a secure and appropriate way. We have an ageing prison population, which creates extra pressure on prison staff who must manage their specific needs. We regularly seek advice from experts on the future of the prison estate. No decisions have been made.”
So considerable numbers of old men will be transferred to “care homes with walls”. Will the opportunity be taken to reduce overcrowding in the prison estate? Of course not. Their places will soon be taken up by younger men.