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The Experience of an Ageing Male Prison Population

Monday, June 21st 2010 - Dr Natalie Mann, University of Essex


Dr Natalie Mann, University of Essex
Our society is unaccustomed to thinking about older people in terms of their involvement in crime and the criminal justice system. Saturated by stereotypical images of the elderly as frail victims of crime, the criminal experiences of this age group have been systematically ignored. However, the number of male prisoners aged 60 years and over, more than trebled between 1994 and 2004, making them the fastest growing population in prison. Whilst the experiences of ageing prisoners has very recently become an area of committed enquiry (see Crawley & Sparks, Wahidin), research in the UK is still far behind that taking place in the USA and there remains an immediate need for further comprehensive research within this field.
My PhD thesis went some way towards addressing this issue. The study was based on extensive in-depth interviews at three very different institutions in England and Wales, with ten prison officers, and 40 prisoners, aged 55 years and over who had either grown old in prison or had been sentenced to prison late in life. The PhD thesis tells their stories and challenges many of the preconceived ideas about prison life.
My findings regarding the prison environment and the daily regime completely supported the existing literature and a lack of regime differentiation which made daily prison life a struggle for the older men was frequently cited as being the biggest problem, an issue Crawley and Sparks (2005) also found and termed ‘institutional thoughtlessness’. The constraints of the prison design meant that disabled prisoners found themselves cut off, and although many of the men in my study were lucky enough to be able to manage the environment unaided, unfortunately prison life will become less accommodating once these men begin to feel the effects of ageing on their bodies, hampering both their mobility and their independence.
Prison employment was considered as somewhat of a joke by many of my respondents. Many felt it was not taken seriously by the Prison Service and a lack of employment opportunities meant that many men were desperately trying to make their menial work last each day, so as to avoid the monotony of time spent in the cell. Although educational relevance for the older men was severely lacking, an issue which supports the findings of Aday (1994) and Wahidin (2004), those who did have employment which honed a particular skill, recognised that they were amongst the lucky few who had employment which interested them and as such, they were extremely grateful.
Education was perceived in a positive way by many, thus challenging existing literature (see Aday, 1994; Prison Reform Trust, 2003; Wahidin, 2004); many of my respondents were engaged in the acquisition of new skills, such as IT training or simply learning to read and write, and for these individuals education was allowing them to achieve and as such, use prison for a positive form of development. However paradoxically, and in support of the literature, were those individuals who were struggling to find education which was of use to them at this stage in their lives. They were required to undertake educational courses but without any subjects which were relevant to the men’s interests, such courses appeared patronising at best, and at worst, a complete waste of the men’s time.
Perhaps most frustratingly, was the fact that the prison staff involved in the provision of education held an insightful knowledge of how prison education could be improved for the older men. Many years of firsthand experience had provided these officers with a specialist understanding of what needed to be done, however, despite demonstrating this knowledge and offering extremely good proposals for change during the course of the interviews, their voices were not heard by those who had the power to implement the necessary changes and make a real difference to the prison’s education policy. The reasons for this became apparent when on a number of occasions the officers maintained that for the Prison Service, education is purely about fulfilling quotas and getting as many men as possible to reach a recognised level of educational attainment in order to meet targets, regardless of whether these courses are relevant to the men, develop their skills, or in fact duplicate what the men have already attained prior to imprisonment. This was a surprising finding and one which provides a great insight into the prison education situation, and the frustration it creates amongst both prisoners and staff. The sad fact remains that older men simply do not fit in with the Prison Service’s concept of rehabilitation and the fact that many will not be able to lead useful lives after release, unfortunately means their educational and employment needs are neglected during the course of their sentence. However, if we continue to imprison increasing numbers of older people, then the Prison Service will eventually have to adapt its practices in order to accommodate the needs of this age group.
The men’s accounts of access to and use of prison healthcare were unfortunately as dire as those discussed in the current literature (see Aday, 1994, 2003; Ornduff, 1996; Wahidin, 2005). Experiences of inadequate treatment and lengthy waiting times for prescriptions or surgical procedures were common amongst this age group. Many were fearful of what would happen if they were seriously ill and this fear only added to the ‘pains of imprisonment’ which they were already experiencing.
Similarly to Sim (2002), I found that great discontent resulted from the attitude of those working within the healthcare departments. It seems that many of the healthcare professionals are unsure as to what their role within the prison actually is, with many demonstrating a distant and unsympathetic nature which is more akin to a prison officer than a health worker. At present, there appears to be a great difference in the standard of healthcare received by those in the free world, compared to those in prison, and as such prison healthcare roles are, at times, occupied by individuals who would make less than satisfactory members of healthcare teams in wider society, and this is something which needs to be addressed.
Despite demonstrating many of the attributes of those prone to prison suicide (Liebling, 1999), the ageing prison population were extremely good at maintaining hope and coping within the prison environment. Friendship emerged as one the most important coping strategies, with many men forming extremely close attachments with their fellow prisoners. Some had been surprised by the amount of friends they had made, and whilst some intended to continue these friendships on release, others took a more practical approach and saw these friendships as a current necessity which resulted from the confined environment within which they lived.
An issue on which there is currently no discussion of within the literature, was the sad fact that there were a number of men who were not able to enjoy the comradeship provided by friends or acquaintances, as for some, the risk involved in forming attachments and then being transferred to another prison, was simply not worth the distress it would inevitably cause. These men were so fearful of being left alone, that daily prison life was characterised by the avoidance of those who might be potential friends, and as such, contact was limited to a polite daily greeting. This finding is somewhat surprising, as existing literature tends to focus on the difficulties of making or maintaining friendships, (Aday, 1994, 2003; PRT, 2003; Wahidin, 2004) rather than how friendship is avoided.
Another of my findings on which there has been no prior recognition, were the men, who paradoxical to those discussed above, would not develop friendships because they were fearful of being associated with undesirable types of people. These men felt that their fellow prisoners were subordinate to them in terms of academic ability and life experience, and so contact with them was avoided. This finding was perhaps particularly surprising as the men were actively sacrificing an important source of support and a well documented means of coping, purely because they felt they were too superior to be acquainted with their fellow prisoners. Whether the avoidance of friendship resulted from a fear of loss, or a fear of associating with ‘lesser’ individuals, for both these groups of men prison life was made slightly more difficult without the camaraderie and support which friendships provide.
Supporting the leading literature was the finding that contact with family, although perceived by the men as one of the most important sources of hope, was in reality extremely difficult. The men were frustrated by the rules and regulations which made contact with family so difficult, despite such contact being promoted by the Prison Service as the most important way for a prisoner to cope with his/her sentence (see Woolf & Tumim, 1991). 
For many of my respondents, contact with family had all but diminished and whilst for many, this was an extremely hard reality to bear, for others, it was a result of their purposeful severing of ties which often resulted from the men’s wish to protect the family, or protect themselves from the memories which the families’ presence within their lives evoked. These men often engaged so totally with prison life, that life in the outside world was all but forgotten.
My analysis found that for ageing prisoners, the very characteristics which render them unique, are the very characteristics which result in their exclusion from the most basic and well recognised principles of the Prison Service. Prisons have never been designed to incarcerate older people, both the establishments and the principles on which they are built have been done so in relation to their target population, namely active and hostile young men, and as such, this form of punishment, both physically and administratively, fails to provide for the ageing population.
Aday, R., (1994) ‘Golden Years Behind Bars’, Federal Probation, June 58(2), 47-54.
Aday, R., (2003) Aging Prisoners, Praeger Publishers, Westport, USA.
Crawley, E., Sparks, R., (2005) ‘Hidden Injuries? Researching the Experiences of Older Men in English Prisons’, The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 44(4), 345-356.
Liebling, A., (1999a) ‘Prison Suicide and Prisoner Coping’ in M. Tonry and J. Petersilia (eds) Prisons Vol. 26, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.
Ornduff, J., (1996) ‘Releasing the Elderly Inmate’, Elder Law Journal September (4) 173-200.
Prison Reform Trust and The Centre for Policy on Ageing (2003) ‘Growing Old in Prison: A Scoping Study on Older Prisoners’, PRT, Northburgh, London, UK.
Sim, J., (2002) The future of prison health care: a critical analysis’, Critical Social Policy, 22, 300-323.
Wahidin, A., (2004) Older Women in the Criminal Justice System, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, UK.
Wahidin, A., (2005) ‘Older Women in the Criminal Justice System: A Timely Response’. Available from,+azrini&hl=en&gl=uk&ct=clnk&cd=19 (Accessed 26th May 2006).
Woolf, Lord Justice & Tumim, Judge., (1991) Prison Disturbances April 1990, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, London, UK.

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