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Pensioner prisoners - new regimes for an aging population

Our UK managing director for custodial and detention services, Jerry Petherick, on the adjustments needed to support an aging prison population
Prison officers on landings

The prison population, in common with the rest of the UK, is aging. Recent figures show that in 2002 just over one in 20 prisoners was aged 50 or over but by last year it had risen to 13 per cent. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman's annual report published last week said that prisons must adjust to older prisoners because the fastest growing segments of the population are among those aged over 50, owing in part to more late life prosecutions for historical sex offences.

We have seen the effect of these changes in sharp relief at HMP Rye Hill in Northamptonshire, which was re-purposed last year from being a training prison to become the only category B sex offender prison in England and Wales. More than 40 per cent of men at the prison are now aged over 50 and 18 per cent are aged over 60. This brings immense challenges as we change our regime, prison infrastructure and environment to become more suitable for a more elderly and infirm population.

While violence is down, there are greater pressures on the healthcare team and our prison custody officers to spend more time in hospital on bed-watches and supporting end-of-life care. In February 2014, we sent prison custody officers to perform bed-watch duties for prisoners in hospital on just one day. In February 2015 the figure was 47 days' equivalent and we currently have four terminally ill men at the prison.

We have a duty to ensure the prison meets the needs of this older population - not least because the Social Care Act passed last year means that we must support prisoners to be as independent as they can for as long as possible. This requires working with various agencies, and we have a particularly strong relationship with Northamptonshire County Council, to try and stimulate prisoners mentally and physically to minimise the impact of mobility problems, dementia and other chronic illnesses. Our regime is changing and the gym team has introduced a popular walking group and there are now more prisoners than ever tending to Rye Hill's gardens.

There is still a long way to go and our infrastructure in particular is still to catch up. We're working with the Ministry of Justice, who own the buildings, to look at options to boost the number of wheelchair suitable cells - currently we have eight - and also to improve access and space to expand healthcare. At HMP Parc in South Wales, we have worked with the Ministry to develop an assisted living unit to support elderly and infirm prisoners for as long as possible inside the prison. The team has been very successful and were recently recognised with a national award for their work but perhaps the best indicator is that many prisoners prefer to stay on the unit for their final days rather than be released to hospital.

We're also looking at the skillset of our prison custody officers because as well as being able to maintain good order they must also be able to care for people in a dignified way under difficult circumstances. Despite many prisoners' older age, we continue our rehabilitation efforts and help them to acknowledge and accept their past offending. This can be challenging - particularly if a prisoner does not have a realistic prospect of ever being released. As 40 per cent of our prisoners at Rye Hill are aged 50 or more, more than 90 per cent received sentences of more than 10 years. Key to preventing despair setting into the regime is encouraging the older men to mentor and take part in the rehabilitation of younger prisoners in order to rekindle a sense of purpose where that's appropriate.

The prison population was aging even before the increased convictions for historic sex abuse charges had an impact and we can expect the trend to continue. Our challenge will be to ensure that regimes, prison infrastructure and the way we rehabilitate prisoners can continue to support every prisoner at every stage of their life.

This piece was first published by the Huffington Post on 14 September, 2015