It may not be widely known, but one of the fastest growing groups within our prison system is the elderly male. There are currently 8,000 such prisoners classified as 'old' and the Prison Service takes 50 as the relevant age due to the often harsh lifestyles already having wreaked havoc with mind and body. There are two main reasons for this ageing prison phenomenon. Firstly, the increase in length of sentences for serious offences over the last decade or so, and secondly the ability of improved forensic techniques, especially that of DNA, in being able to apprehend suspects many years after the commission of offences. By far the largest category of prisoner in this aged male population is the sex offender.
Often abandoned by friends and family it's extremely difficult for probation officers to find suitable accommodation for these prisoners upon release. In my experience, both hostels and sheltered accommodation providers are extremely loathe to justify the risks involved and I do wonder if there might not be some frail and elderly prisoners on determinate sentences possibly languishing in prisons beyond the legal authority to detain them? Surely not I hear you say...... ? But certainly for those on indeterminate sentences, it goes without saying that lack of suitable, supervised accommodation often precludes the possibility of the Parole Board even seriously considering release. I guess it could be described as 'scandalous', but where is the willingness or funding for such specialised units that would be required as an alternative to prison?
For the first time ever, the Prison Service has granted media access to the special elderly unit at HMP Norwich, along with other prisons, and Rex Bloomstein's programme for BBC Radio 4 makes fascinating listening as a result. There are real issues of risk involved, even with men in their 70's and 80's, in terms of possible further offending and it was enlightening to hear the Governor of HMP Whatton talking of current experiments with libido-reducing drugs for this group. I'm not at all sure I'm entirely at ease with such developments as it inevitably brings back some very unhappy thoughts of drug therapies and treatments in the 50's and 60's. I seem to recall that Alan Turing was sentenced to such a chemical treatment as part of a Probation Order after the war. I suppose by nature I'm much more inclined towards cognitive therapies where sex offending is concerned.
Anyway, a thought-provoking programme for those interested in yet another aspect of our mostly secretive prison system and due for repeat on Sunday 15th January at 5.00pm on BBC Radio 4. Alternatively, in the UK it can be found on i-player here.