Older Prisoners

Let us first of all accept the definition of older prisoners as being those aged 50 and over. We then have to say that this is not a homogeneous group. From a health point of view, there is a fundamental difference between someone just turned 50 and someone aged over 70. But leaving the health discussion aside, I can see three distinct groups:

1. Career Criminals

These are people who have vast experience of the justice and prisons systems and tend to get by very well. They are older prisoners only by virtue of their chosen trade and regard prison as an occupational hazard. These are often the guys that tell people like me to shut up because they are in a constant battle with authority. They usually are only concerned about their individual situation and are not particularly reform-oriented.

2. Dispossessed

These guys are failed career criminals who are in and out of prison for minor offences. The sort of person, maybe that has learning difficulties, grew up in care, might smoke spice and, on release, might end up living on the streets.

3. Not Really Criminals

The reader who understands the justice/prison complex will know what I mean. The naïve will imagine that anyone who has been convicted of a crime is by definition a criminal.  This category is made up of prisoners that were living normal non-criminal lives outside. This group includes those that have made one mistake which they regret, admit and are unlikely to ever repeat; those who didn’t think the crime they committed was really a crime; and those who are partly or wholly innocent.

The reader may well be able to, or wish to, identify other categories. This paper is not supposed to be a scientific analysis, I merely want to present an “older prisoner’s” view and the categorisation above is just convenient. It’s convenient, above all, because a lot of what I might say may only be applicable to Category 3.

a. Family, Friends and External Lifestyle

The older prisoner is more likely to have an established network of family and friends and is more likely to have a stable home situation. For this reason, there is less flight risk, less likelihood of self-harm, less propensity to be violent, greater propensity to be compliant and he has, in general, more to lose. This is one of the reasons that putting older prisoners into the same accommodation block should result in reduced staffing levels. They are, paradoxically, more autonomous or less ‘needy’ when separated from the rest of the prison population. They generally have a more stable financial situation, but there is one problem. Prisoners of pensionable age, inexplicably, have their state pension stopped. This can cause acute stress on those whose families depend upon that pension to subsist. It also causes a feeling of resentment because for example, two people convicted of the same crime receiving a six-year sentence one aged 62, one aged 65. The one aged 62 loses nothing the one aged 65 loses his pension. These funds have been earned through the dint of work, are taken and never returned! The judge never sentenced him to this and, yet, his sentence is heavier than his accomplice.

b. Internal Lifestyle

Once in prison the older prisoner has a lot to cope with – with which he may not be familiar: fear, noise, smoke, drugs, violence, dirt, cramped conditions, insalubrious sanitation, young people in authority…

Scenario 1. An older prisoner requests assistance from an officer and is typically polite and waits his turn. If the officer is speaking with another prisoner, he will step back to afford them some privacy. When that conversation is finished, the older person advances to speak but is queue -jumped by a youngster. The officer smiles ruefully knowing that he risks no violence from the older prisoner. The bell goes, the old man goes to work with his question unanswered. The youngster doesn’t care if he is late for work.

Lesson: If you are compliant you are not necessarily well treated.  The punishment of prison for the compliant prisoner is more severe.

Scenario 2. An older prisoner complains to an officer about the noise from his neighbours who are trying to get him moved out so their mates can move in. The young officer does not regard the complaint as worthy of his attention when there are so many more urgent and threatening things going on. The fact that this is intimidation goes unnoticed because the young officer doesn’t find the music obtrusive and he feels it keeps the youngsters happy.

Lesson: There are many reasons to separate older prisoners from the rest. It is difficult for young officers to understand the older prisoner.

Scenario 3. An older prisoner, having had to cope with cell mates one half or one third his age, eventually gets told that he will be getting a single cell when his current cell-mate leaves. His cell mate leaves and he heaves a sigh of relief. The following afternoon the door is opened and a new cell-mate arrives aged 20. Older prisoner explains about his sleeping and toilet habits and the youngster (who is a smoker) is not happy. The older prisoner complains to the SO that this was not what he was told and explains the situation. She says she knows, but there is no space anywhere else in the prison and it’s only for one day. She knows he can ‘cope’. As planned, the following day the youngster is moved out. SO goes off shift and two hours later the door opens and there is thirty-year-old installed who has just been sent from the segregation unit of another prison where he had been selling mobile phones. Same story: no space in the prison and it’s only for one day. Afterwards the compliant, older prisoner is moved into a double cell with another older prisoner.

Lesson: Let it be known that you are going to kill someone or yourself if you don’t get what was promised, because a compliant older prisoner will always be last in the queue.

c. Work

With the older prisoner there is a greater probability of work experience which needs to be recognised because of its potential value to staff and inmates. By the time I got to prison I had worked full time for 45 years and been retired, though an active investor, for 6. I was delighted to be able to work but I was never at the top of the list because I was not “needy”.

Scenario 4. An older prisoner applies for a job as an Orderly in NCS. The interview goes well and qualifications and prison experience are obviously superb. Discussion overruns because he has many suggestions given his understanding of the role of NCS. Two days later he is called back to NCS. It is explained to him politely and logically why he has not got the job: because he does not need to work, could get another job easily if he had to and does not need rehabilitation. He is asked if he wouldn’t mind helping the chosen one to put together his workplan and agrees.

Lesson: If you do not need rehabilitation you will be respected but not necessarily employed because there are not enough ‘proper’ jobs to go around.

Now an important point. In C Cat and D Cat a pensioner who does not elect to work will be treated, as far as the regime is concerned, as if he were working. In B Cat, however, if you don’t work, you are locked up during working hours! And there is no regime in B Cat for older prisoners. If you ask what the rules are you will be ignored. If the non-worker regime is applied to you that then affects other ‘privileges’ such as pay, gym, library and ‘Social and Domestic’ time.


  • Older prisoners should have single cells. Where they have to be, temporarily, housed in a double cell they should share with another older prisoner but never with an open toilet.
    • Where possible, they should be given the possibility of being housed in special units if capable of living in a semi-autonomous fashion
    • Staff should be made aware of special needs in terms of noise, smoking, drugs, violence, healthcare, etcetera
    • Meaningful work should be made available recognising experience or retired status must be granted as if the older prisoner were working.
    • Where the older prisoner elects not to work, facilities should be made available to make reasonable use of his time (Reading, Writing, Typing, Exercise, Helping Others etcetera.)

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