Where life means life, in the USA, 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 stair lifts and other adaptations. Others will undoubtedly follow as the numbers grow and the inappropriateness of mixing frail elderly people in with the general prison population is recognised.

There are currently around 2,500 elderly prisoners in British prisons. While this represents only 3% of the total prison population it is a growing problem for governors. 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. So who does? The other prisoners, 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 prisoners. In the meantime, more elderly 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. What has become apparent is that this trend is not restricted to this country. Both Holland and France have reported a growth in the number of older criminals.   

Research in Holland found that a high proportion of those over 60 appearing before the courts had undiagnosed dementia. The implication being that their antisocial and disinhibited behaviour was not a disregard for the law but a result of their illness

Whatever the reasons for more elderly people finding themselves before the courts, the growth in the number of elderly people in prison presents a leadership challenge that the NHS, the prison service and social services cannot ignore.