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Why Older Offenders?

Older people in the Criminal Justice System are a hidden and little-recognised population, which few people would identify as the fastest growing section of the population involved in the UK's criminal justice system.


An older offender is generally defined as someone involved in the criminal justice system who is aged 50 or over. Although many people aged 50 may not consider themselves "older", it is seen as an appropriate threshold amongst this group in recognition of the practical realities they face. There is substantial evidence to suggest that prisoners suffer greater health problems than the general population, with many of them having health characteristics typical of someone aged ten years older who is not in prison.


  • The older prisoner population is projected to grow from 13,376 as at 30 June 2017 to 14,800 by the end of June 2021 – including a projected growth in the over 70s from 1,599 to 2,100 (HMPPS April 2018)
  • Older prisoners currently make up 17% of the overall prison population; in 2011, they made up only 10%. That’s 70% growth in 7 years and is projected to continue growing. (HMPPS April 2018).
  • Of the 54% of older prisoners estimated to have a disability, 28% were estimated to have some form of physical disability, 15% anxiety and depression, and 11% both. (HMPPS April 2018)
  • 189 Older prisoners died in custody in 2016, 53% of the overall number of those that died in custody.  87% of the older prisoners died of natural causes. (HMPPS April 2018)
  • The very nature of the prison built environment may pose particular challenges to this cohort, as up to half of this group experience sensory impairment or reduced mobility (or both). (HMPPS April 2018)
  • Lonely people are more likely to suffer from dementia, heart disease and depression. (Valtorta et al, 2016) (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006)
  • Loneliness is likely to increase your risk of death by 29% (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)


HMI Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) have regularly reported on issues relating to older prisoners, with the PPO publishing a thematic report in June 2017. They have highlighted concerns over the challenges in managing an ageing population in environments built for younger men. Some of their key findings have been:

  • ‘institutional thoughtlessness’ when it comes to regimes, rules and timetables;
  • those in prison of retirement age often have no education or leisure opportunities;
  • there is a lack of availability of activities and rehabilitation for older prisoners;
  • those past retirement age that choose not to work are often confined to their cells and earned less than working prisoners for essentials such as toiletries;
  • few prison cells are adapted to meet the needs of older or disabled people; and
  • “a one size fits all approach to diet, exercise, rehabilitation and medical treatment is outmoded and is effectively a form of age discrimination”.
  • There are no specific national policies addressing the particular needs of this group.
  • Many older prisoners have lost contact with friends and family, and often do not have a home to return to on release from prison.
  • Most older prisoners are held more than 50 miles from home and a third are more than 100 miles away.
  • Funding for education in prisons is often limited to people of working age.
  • Disabilities associated with chronic disease and lifestyle are more common in older prisoners than older people in the community.
  • Individual institutions and organisations often lack the resources and specialist knowledge to meet older people’s health and social care requirements.
  • Prison Reform Trust research found that some older people entering prison had the medication they were receiving in the community stopped.
  • Despite being the fastest growing section of the prison population, there is little research, little data or information and little current provision available for older offenders.
  • 40% of prisons responding to a Prison Reform Trust survey reported that no specific age-related assessments or arrangements were in place.
  • HM Inspectorate of Prisons has identified "a complete lack of staff training in identifying the signs of mental health problems among the elderly".

Why are numbers increasing?

From the few studies conducted to date the growth in the older prison population is generally attributed to:

  • Changes in social and police attitudes to older people
  • Lower tolerance by the courts of deviant behaviour by older people and therefore a greater readiness to imprison them
  • Changes in sentencing policy; “other offences” rose 94% between 1995 and 2005
  • Imprisonment for breach of supervision licence has increased 855% 1995-2005 (from 104 to 993)
  • Imprisonment for bail act offences between 1995 and 2005 has risen 746% from (194 to 1642)
  • An increase in female convictions for drug related crime , especially by foreign nationals
  • An increase in female convictions for violence, potentially linked to female drinking
  • Tougher sentencing in general, especially longer sentences for sex offences and mandatory life sentences
  • The accumulation in prison of older habitual offenders and those ageing through long sentences
  • The impact of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will continue to increase demand for prison places, with an expected increase  of prisoners on Extended Sentences for Public Protection

It is clear that the increases in numbers cited are part of a trend resulting from changes in attitudes within society and the criminal justice system, coupled with an ageing population. However, to date, very few additional resources have been made nationally available to meet the needs of this particular group of offenders, either within or outside of prisons.

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