Elderly Prisoners, Over-crowded Prisons and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Prisons designed for fit, young men must adjust to the largely unexpected and unplanned roles of care home and even hospice. Increasingly, prison staff are having to manage not just ageing prisoners and their age-related conditions, but also the end of prisoners’ lives and death itself – usually with limited resources and inadequate training.’ * Nigel Newcomen

In the 18th century a jail sentence was a virtual death warrant. Over-crowded, insanitary jails were ideal for typhus, commonly called jail fever. Prisons in 21st century Britain are massively over-crowded and with the advent of Coronavirus they too could become death traps. Coronavirus is lethal for the elderly and government advice isvery firm. This advice is null and void in prison. There’s no possibility of self- isolation inprison. Elderly prisoners should be tagged and released.

More than half of all prisons in England are over-crowded (62%) with an ever ageing population:-

Prisoners aged 60 to 69 are the fastest-growing group in the prison population, with a 146% increase between 2002 and 2014 to 2,541.’

Those 2,541 prisoners are a demographic time bomb who will increase the numbers of the over 70s in the foreseeable future. In 2018 there were 1500 prisoners aged 70+ of which 191 prisoners are 80+, 12 are 90+ and one is 100+. All should be released into a tagged non-custodial environment. The government’s Coronavirus advice is that social isolation and distancing must be adhered to prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths The government has a duty of care towards prisoners as it has towards the wider population. Knowingly endangering prisoners is unconscionable.

England’s prison population surged after 1995. It’s more than doubled in 25 years. (see addendum) Reverting to pre-1995 sentencing would reduce numbers, making prisons healthier. Reviewing sentencing is a matter of urgency to prevent prisons becoming Coronavirus hot spots, which would spill over into the wider community. Ex post facto sentencing reviews should be initiated to release those who wouldn’t have been in prison pre-1995. This point is additional to the necessity to release elderly prisoners.

Two former Conservative Home Secretarys have diametrically opposed views about sentencing policy. Douglas Hurd felt ‘prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse’ whilst Michael Howard declared ‘prison works’. They weren’t however discussing whether prisoners should be kept in prison during a pandemic disease, which is known to have a very high death rate for the elderly. The Coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to radically review Britain’s love affair with incarceration.

Government advice about social isolation could well be firmed up in the coming weeks.** If the advice is sound and prisons aren’t subject to a radical review about who’s incarcerated, they’ll be liable for damages. The government’s duty of care is clear. If strategies are not used by the government to mitigate those lethal dangers, they are liable for substantial damages. And this ignores the humanitarian issue of protecting lives from possible death.

A 25 year love affair with incarceration in England has created over-crowded prisons entirely unfit for the changing demographics of the current prison population. That population is fast ageing because of long sentences, creating a dramatically increasing cohort of elderly prisoners. The Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that our prisons could revert to a version of 18th century death traps. Urgent action is required to mitigate this humanitarian crisis. Tagging is a simple way forward and should be employed immediately, beginning with the over 70s.

Addendum: Prison population 1900 to present

NB The surge from the mid-1990s


* https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/ppo-dev-storage-4dvljl6iqfyh/uploads/2017/06/6-3460_PPO_Older-Prisoners_WEB.pdf p3

** This was written on the 22nd March 2020


For over-crowded prisons see https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/prison-overcrowded-cells-violence-uk-howard-league-penal-reform-a9033091.html

And the Howard League https://howardleague.org/news/revealed-the-scale-of-prison and a quick summary see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_prison_population

For government advice for the elderly see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-on-social-distancing-and-for-vulnerable-people/guidance-on-social-distancing-for-everyone-in-the-uk-and-protecting-older-people-and-vulnerable-adults

For the elderly in prison see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/jun/20/prisons-taking-role-of-care-homes-and-hospices-as-older-population-soars 2017

For prison statistics see https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04334/SN04334.pdf

For the an interesting discussion on the effectiveness of prison see https://journeyswiththelaw.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/is-imprisonment-really-an-expensive-way-of-making-bad-people-worse/

Tort law is specific see https://lawaspect.com/duty-care-tort-law/

This entry was posted in Health, Politics, Prison, Prison reform, statistics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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