The photograph was of a frail man in a wheelchair handcuffed to a prison officer. The article and accompanying photograph appeared in The Guardian highlighting the problem of caring for the increasing numbers of elderly and disabled prisoners.
The story focused on the comments by the hospital consultant who criticised the care provide by the prison service claiming it has severely damaged the patient’s health.
Concerns over the care of elderly and disable prisoners however is not new. A number of reports over the last two years such as the survey by Prison Governors Association have highlighted growing concerns over social care in prisons.
‘In the US, where life means life, the problem of elderly prisoners has been around for a long time but it is a relatively new feature of British prisons’
Prisons are experiencing a growth in pensioner prisoners and in the absence of support from local authorities and primary care trusts they are using other prisoners to provide personal care.
In the US, where life means life, the problem of elderly prisoners has been around for a long time but it is a relatively new feature of British prisons. The over-60s are the fastest growing section of the prison population.
Kingston prison in Portsmouth is the first in the country to provide a specialist “elderly wing” equipped with stairlifts and other adaptations. Others will undoubtedly follow as the numbers grow and the inappropriateness of mixing frail elderly and disabled people in with the general prison population is recognised.
The numbers and percentages of prisoners with a disability varies. Prison data records record a figure of 5 per cent – around 4,500 prisoners – but a Ministry of Justice survey earlier supports inspection finding of 19 per cent. Clearly not all these prisoners are profoundly disabled and not every prisoner over the age of 60 is physically frail and in need of care, but clearly it is a growing problem.
Who should care?
Who should care for frail and disabled elderly prisoners? Prison officers say it is not part of their job to wash, dress, feed and toilet prisoners. Prison governors think the NHS should provide nursing auxiliaries as the health of prisoners is the responsibility of the NHS.
Health service managers think local authority social services should provide care arguing that if they were in their own home or sheltered housing they would. But they are not so they won’t.
‘Prison officers say it is not part of their job to wash, dress, feed and toilet prisoners’
So who does? Well other prisoners do which is neither satisfactory nor appropriate.
Budget cuts across the public sector are likely to entrench views about whose responsibility it is to fund the care costs of elderly and disabled prisoners.
In the meantime more elderly and disabled people are appearing before the courts. It is not clear whether this is because older people are committing more offences or whether the police and courts have adopted a harsher attitude towards older people breaking the law.
Whatever the reasons for more elderly people finding themselves before the courts the growth in the number of elderly and disabled people in prison presents a challenge to the NHS, the Prison Service and social services. A challenge which despite all the talk of collaboration and cooperation remains just that - talk.