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Prisons: challenges of an ageing inmate population and Covid-19

27 July 2020

Two new reports by the Justice Select Committee set out the challenges of managing an ageing inmate population and the effect of Covid-19 in prisons in England and Wales.

The Committee collected evidence in written and oral form from a wide range of government ministers, senior officials, charities and other stakeholders to inform the reports.

The report on the impact of the pandemic in prisons highlights tough Covid-19 lockdown measures that one prison charity told the Committee were “consistent, or very close, to international definitions of solitary confinement”.

The Ageing Prison Population

The inquiry into the ageing prison population was undertaken because the number of prisoners over the age of 60 has risen between 2002 and 2020 from 1,511 to 5,176 – an increase of more than 240%. The increase has been driven mainly by more men being prosecuted for sexual offences and by longer sentences across a range of offences, meaning more people grow old in prison.

A large proportion of older prisoners have distinct health and social care needs. Prisoners tend to have worse health than the wider community – 85 % of prisoners over the age of 60 have some form of major illness. Many of these prisoners – who are mainly men – suffer from problems accessing locations or services within prisons. Many of the prisons in England and Wales, especially those dating from the Victorian era, were not designed to accommodate people with accessibility needs. In many establishments there are locations with a lack of step-free access, wheelchair-accessible cells or grab rails.

Older prisoners also need more social care than their younger peers. Local authorities in whose area prisons are situated have a duty to provide social care – for example, mobility assessments or help with different types of disability. But Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission said in a 2018 report that the provision of social care services in prisons was subject to a ‘postcode lottery’, with the care needs of some prisoners going unmet in a number of establishments. 

More broadly, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, told this inquiry that there was a lack of strategic planning for the provision and coordination of social care in prisons. Mr Clarke noted a ‘disjoint’ between Ministry of Justice plans to reconfigure the prison estate and the role of local authorities as prison social care providers. He told the Committee:

“If resettlement prisons should in the future be configured to meet social care needs, because those are the prisons from which older prisoners are likely to be released, that is not joined up in any way, as far as I can see, with the responsibilities of local authorities to deliver social care in their particular geographic area. Of course, local authorities have no remit or ability at all to influence the physical conditions in prisons on which so much of the effective delivery of social care depends."

For all of the above reasons the Justice Committee is calling on the Ministry of Justice to establish a national strategy for older prisoners, so their needs are met consistently across the prison estate in England and Wales.

The government told the Committee in its written submission for the report that it was “not yet persuaded that categorisation of prisoners by age is necessarily helpful given the wide range of needs, abilities and requirements that will be included in the older prisoner cohort.”

Pensions Minster's comment

However, the Prisons Minister, Lucy Frazer, did indicate that the Ministry of Justice’s position on a national strategy had shifted when she told the Committee:

“[It] is something we need to seriously think about. I am in favour of having an over-arching strategy, particularly on things like accommodation. We have an opportunity now to build 10,000 additional places, which is going to include a number of new prisons. This is a good opportunity to think about how we configure that accommodation, particularly having in mind that we have an older cohort.”

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has produced a ‘Model for Operational Delivery’ for older prisoners. But the Committee does not think this is enough.

Chair's comment

The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, said:

“The Model for Operational Delivery is not a strategy. It sets out ways older prisoners’ needs can be met, but its provisions are optional for prison governors. We need an overarching national strategy, pulling together health and social care, with timelines and accountabilities to ensure it is delivered”.

Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on prisons

The second report on prisons being published by the Justice Committee today is ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on prisons’. This report was initiated in the early days of the pandemic because it was feared there could be explosive outbreaks of the disease in the overcrowded prison estate; the Committee wanted carefully to monitor the situation.

23 prisoners and nine members of staff in the prison service have died from Covid-19 at the time of writing. The Committee extends its sympathies to their families and loved ones.

However, the feared mass outbreaks of the disease did not occur thanks to the combined efforts of the Secretary of State, his ministerial team, all of those working in the prison service and prisoners themselves.

The worst has been averted so far by accommodating prisoners, as far as possible, in single occupancy cells and keeping groups of people, such as newly arrived prisoners and vulnerable (often older) prisoners in separate areas. Other measures taken included the ending of family visits, social distancing and extended lockdowns.

The Committee is concerned about how long these Covid-19 lockdowns in prisons have been in place. While it recognises the complexity of moving a prison out of lockdown, the Committee is concerned about the effect severe restrictions will have on prisoners, including on the mental health of adults and children.

The Committee calls on the Ministry of Justice to set out what measures it plans to mitigate any negative effects.

In late April the Ministry introduced an ‘End of Custody Temporary Release’ scheme designed to reduce overcrowding in prisons in light of the pandemic. The government said up to 4,000 prisoners would be eligible for it.

However, the Committee is surprised that only a little over 200 prisoners have in fact been released.

The Members recognise that the scheme was implemented alongside other population management measures. But the Committee nevertheless asks that the Ministry of Justice explain why the scheme has shown such slow progress and delivered very little in terms of increasing capacity in prisons.

Chair's comments

Sir Bob Neill said:

“We are most grateful to the Ministry, prison governors and prison officers for the vital work they are doing to respond to the pandemic and protect those in their care and the public. But we hope the Covid-19 lockdown in prisons can be carefully eased, with consistency across the prison estate, as it is being eased in the wider community.”

Further information

Image: MoJ