Porridge and Horlicks. We often talk about Britain’s ageing population. Much less about the ageing populations within it. The above graph shows the growth of various age groups of prisoners over the past decade. You’ll notice that it leans heavily towards the greyer end of the spectrum. The number of prisoners aged over 60 has increased by 125 per cent since June 2004, whilst the number of 15 to 17-year-olds has declined by 67 per cent. In between, it’s almost a perfect spread: the older the age-group, the more it’s grown.
Some context. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the old outnumber the young in chokey. According to the latest figures, there are almost 4,000 prisoners who are older than 60, compared to just over 28,000 in their twenties. But it’s the rises and falls that are more striking. Forget the last decade: that 4,000 is 11 per cent higher than it was just a year ago. The 28,000 is 2 per cent lower. The demographics of our prisons are changing fast.
Causes… In the long run, prison populations might age in similar ways to the general population: just like law-abiding folk, crims are living for longer. But this doesn’t nearly explain the trends of the past decade. What does is longer sentences; combined with more convictions for historic offences, particularly sexual offences. You could almost call it the Rolf Harris Effect. More people are speaking out about these past crimes, and modern police forces have more methods to expose them.
…and effects.Prison isn’t kind to its elderly occupants. On top of the usual health problems that come with growing old, there are those that come with being locked up. The Prison Reform Trust suggests that “older prisoners possess a physiological age approximately ten years in excess of their chronological age.” Dementia and other mental illnesses are rife. Even if this doesn’t worry politicians by itself, it ought to when they consider the fiscal implications. Older prisoners cost more to look after. It’s yet another upwards pull on spending.
What’s the plan? Thankfully, our legislators aren’t ignorant of these problems. A couple of years ago, the Commons’ Justice Committee called for a “national strategy” to help tackle them. What might this involve? The Committee proposed making prisons more suitable for elderly inmates, among other measures. But there’s also the idea, currently being advanced in America, of releasing certain non-dangerous prisoners early. Another one for Michael Gove’s ministerial in-tray.