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RECOOP's Response to Breaking the Cycle

Monday, April 18th 2011 - Liz Davis

RECOOP (Resettlement and Care of Older Ex-offenders and Prisoners) was set up in November 2010.  Its charitable purpose is to promote the care, resettlement and rehabilitation of offenders and ex offenders, in particular those over the age of 50, in particular but not exclusively through the provision of support services, advocacy, financial advice, mentoring on issues such as employment and training and advice on housing and health that will enable them to take control of their lives and remain free from offending and prevent them from becoming socially excluded. 

RECOOP is the only organisation in the United Kingdom focussed entirely on the needs of this marginalised and growing group. 

RECOOP developed from a project hosted by Age Concern Regional Support Services (South West) called Age Concern Older Offenders Project (ACOOP).  The lack of support services for older prisoners and offenders meant that ACOOP grew very rapidly, and RECOOP is a charity with an objective of providing services nationally, through lobbying for improvements in policy and practice and disseminating good practice in the care of older offenders. 

RECOOP was set up because people aged over 50 are the fastest growing section of the prison population, but are often not well served by criminal justice system which understandably is set up to cater for the particular needs of young, prolific offenders.  

However, with the number of older people involved in the criminal justice system having trebled in the past twenty years, people aged over 50 now comprise approximately 10% of the prison population.  In our opinion this is often an invisible minority, that unlike many other groups does not have its particular needs recognised.  This is evidenced by the fact that older offenders are not mentioned in “Breaking the Cycle”. 

The reasons that older offenders are increasing in number so rapidly are complex.  It is clear that this group has very different characteristics to many other groups in the criminal justice system. Factors contributing to the increase in numbers include: 

  • Increased imprisonment for breach of supervision licence and bail act offences
  • Improved forensic detection and retrospective prosecution of sex offenders
  • An increase in female convictions for drug related crime, especially by foreign nationals
  • Tougher sentencing in general
  • The high number of indeterminate sentences imposed by courts
  •  

RECOOP prides itself in working constructively with the statutory sector, providing services tailored to the needs of older prisoners, structured around our core offer of:

  •  Information and advice
  • Advocacy
  • Low level health and social care
  • Groupwork (structured around the Pathways to Reducing Re Offending)
  •  

We work in most of the prisons in the South West of England, where some prisons are accommodating over 100 older offenders.  We also available to give advice to prison and probation officers across the country.  It is clear that whilst there are committed individuals within prisons and Probation Trusts who recognise the particular problems of this group, provision is patchy, and there is no clear policy or guidelines on how to support a particularly vulnerable group of offenders. 

Coping with older people in prison often puts enormous demands on prison officers.  Prison buildings and regimes are designed for fit young men, and the needs of older people are difficult to accommodate.  Our experience indicates that older people often do not access services in prison, and leave prison with little support in key areas of resettlement, e.g. state pension provision.  Prompt payment of state pension entitlement on release from prison would aid resettlement and save substantial time spent by Probation Officers who often have to provide support and advice in dealing with the Department of Work and Pensions. 

People who have spent substantial time in prison are often fearful of being released, and RECOOP has substantial anecdotal evidence of older people reoffending in order to be readmitted to prison.  Older people who have served a number of short sentences leave prison with no support, and often return to street drinking.  Others have lost touch with families and communities and face social exclusion and isolation on release.  

RECOOP comments on Breaking the Cycle:

RECOOP welcomes the intention to free local managers, professionals and volunteers from central control to create a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, but regrets there is no recognition of the needs of over 8,000 prisoners and a larger number of older people on community sentences and supervision orders. 

We welcome the objective of integration with other government initiatives, and would hope that better liaison with the Department of Work and Pensions on prompt payment of state pensions on release from prison could be achieved.  This would cost little, but would substantially aid resettlement and may contribute to reducing re-offending. 

The social care and health care needs of older offenders are particularly poorly served at present.  Much preventative low level health and social care could be provided at low cost by organisations such as RECOOP.  Supporting offenders to take responsibility for their health and well being will save the state money in the long run, for example, RECOOP provides chair based exercise classes which help maintain the mobility of older, frail prisoners. 

Our experience is that like many other older people, older prisoners wish to work, both in prison and on leaving prison.  However, many older prisoners feel that they do not have the opportunity to use their skills or learn new skills in prison.  RECOOP hopes that with the emphasis on full working week (40hrs), and Prisoners Earnings Act being used to pay back victims, opportunities for the voluntary sector to provide work opportunities for older people will be provided.  It is a concern that payment by results linked to restorative justice and employment may ignore a generally compliant group of offenders.

Our experience indicates remand prisons are accommodating sex offenders who are unable to access Sex Offender Treatment Programmes because there is insufficient capacity.  Greater resourcing of specialist provision is necessary to ensure prison places are utilised efficiently.  

Older people are represented in all parts of the criminal justice system.  Whilst we fully support the imprisonment of those guilty of serious offences, RECOOP believes that greater awareness of the needs and characteristics of older offenders may contribute to the required reduction of the prison population.  Improved awareness of the possibility of early signs of dementia, mental illness or physical illness for those working in custody suites with older people arrested for the first time may result in more appropriate action and support being taken. 

The needs of those growing old and dying in prison are difficult to adequately meet in mainstream prisons, and we would recommend a pilot project to set up “secure sheltered accommodation” where frail older offenders are better cared for, but the public are still protected from serious offenders. 

Finally, we would urge that excellent initiatives such as the NACRO “Working with Older Offenders Tool Kit” are further utilised, and that training and awareness for prison staff, Probation Staff and community based groups who have a part to play in reducing re offending is properly resourced.

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