Who Cares ? The Lived Experience Of Older Prisoners In Scotland's Prisons


In embarking on this review, the first task was to agree on the definition of 'elderly' for the purposes of the study. The literature varies in determining elderly prisoners from between 50 and 65 years of ages, depending on the location of the study[2]. In both America and Australia the early onset of physical ageing is a factor, and 'elderly' is considered to begin at the age of 50 years[3]. In this study older prisoners have been specified as all prisoners of 60 years of age and over. This reflects a common sense view of ageing in Scotland in that many of the specific health, mobility and other challenges associated with older age would be more likely to begin to become apparent in those over 60. It also ensured that we were dealing with both a substantial enough cohort but also one which could be managed given the resources available.

The Scottish Prison Service provided details of those in custody who were aged 60 or over across all prisons at the start date of the review process. This amounted to 280 prisoners with the greatest concentration located in HMPs Barlinnie, Edinburgh and Glenochil.

A mixed methods approach involving both a survey and fieldwork interviews was adopted in order to build both an overview of the current situation along with a deeper understanding of specific problems and needs. A questionnaire was designed, piloted and subsequently sent to all those prisoners who fell into the catchment category. Of the 280 questionnaires sent out a total of 164 were returned completed, equating to a near 60% participation rate.

Table 1: Age range of survey participants

<Table 1: Age range of survey participants>

Table 2: Number of years in custody for survey participants

<Table 2: Number of years in custody for survey participants>

Survey participants broadly reflected the overall population of older prisoners.

As part of the questionnaire recipients were asked whether or not they would be willing to be interviewed if selected as part of the on-going study. It was helpful that the number of people prepared to be interviewed was high.

The data from the questionnaires was managed utilising a data collection and analysis tool (Questback). This allowed us to produce a series of reports focusing on key themes emerging from the questionnaire returns in order to inform the interview schedule. A total of six interviewers were involved, including Inspectorate staff, an SPS Governor and an experienced academic to test consistency of process and results gathered. Interviews were conducted by teams of two interviewers.

Additional interviews were conducted to probe further into aspects of the enquiry that had not been possible with the initial interviewees selected. For example, amongst the initial tranche of prisoners interviewed there was a limited number who had significant health issues. Initial interviewee selection was based in part on those who had a story to tell. In other words they had put some considerable time and effort into completing the questionnaire, going so far as to add additional sheets containing information they felt was relevant. The second set of interviews was conducted with prisoners who had experienced particular issues of relevance to this study, including health problems.

The data from the interviews with prisoners and the views expressed by staff reflect their perspectives and the experiences that they chose to relate. As with any study of this nature, each perspective is valid in its own right, and contributes to the overall picture created through the accessing of a range of perspectives. Interview data was analysed both individually and collectively resulting in the specific themes chosen for closer examination. This data allowed for the production of the themes which highlight the issues faced by older prisoners in Scotland today.

We considered from the outset of this thematic study that the views of staff who worked with elderly prisoners were essential to develop a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced in addressing the care needs of older prisoners. Two focus groups with staff were carried out in two separate establishments to ensure that these views were considered and used to inform the study.