Relationships are as important for people in prison as they are for those in wider society. For the majority of prisoners the relationships which are most important to them are with their loved ones. When a prisoner is asked, 'What is the most important thing to you in prison?' many will say that it is their visits. In other words, for prisoners, the importance of building and maintaining relationships with people out-with the prison is greater than with those who they live with inside it. To most prisoners this will be a wife or partner and their children. It then stretches out to include parents and siblings, and finally friends and acquaintances. Older prisoners are no different in this regard; these relationships matter to them too. However, older prisoners, including people serving very long sentences, may encounter a special and distinct set of issues. This may be exacerbated by the fact that many of them have been convicted of sexual offences.
One long term prisoner interviewed spoke of a sense of loss and helplessness which brought the pains of imprisonment into sharp focus:
"I have been in prison so long I have watched from in here as almost all my family has died. I have nobody left. If I ever do get out I have nobody to go out to. They have all gone. Those that are left I lost contact with a long time ago."
This sentiment was typical of those expressed by a number of the prisoners we interviewed. For those prisoners, relationships within the prison took on new meaning. Some said that they had "a couple of close pals" or "there are one or two prisoners I get on with, but they're not real friends". This highlights the awareness of prisoners of the need to co-exist with one another. Prisoners express a need for social contact and companionship within the prison. However they also sometimes encounter difficulties in entirely trusting or relying on their in-prison relationships and sense that these are sometimes contingent and lacking in depth.
Some prisoners were guarded in interviews with our team of outsiders. However on other occasions their responses revealed deep sadness and hopelessness:
"I don't get visits, my family have disowned me and I don't have anyone in here I would call a friend. What's the point?"
For many prisoners the isolation from family and the lack of trust and meaningful relationships with other prisoners meant that their relationships with staff took on huge personal significance. Numerous prisoners throughout the study commented in a positive manner on the job staff do. Small acts of kindness were also commented on and were clearly very important to older prisoners:
"An officer could see that I was struggling to collect my food and get back to my cell. I was too proud to ask for help but the officer just came along and spoke to me. He took my plate and walked back to my cell with me. From then on another prisoner brought my food to my cell for me."
It was clear when interviewing this prisoner that this officer's actions had a profound effect on him. He was one of many prisoners who became emotional during interview.
Another prisoner told us:
"The staff in here do a great job. They will help you if you need it. Some of them, if they see you are struggling with something, they will come to you. It may not be something massive like to do with your progression, but say you weren't fit enough to get your cell cleaned up, they would get someone to do it for you."
Not all comments from prisoners about staff were positive. However when negative comments did arise they were often aimed at staff who weren't used to working in the area which contained the elderly prisoners. This was particularly evident where the prisoner population were sex offenders. One prisoner said:
"You have to remember we are sex offenders in here. I don't blame the staff for not wanting anything to do with us. They have a job to do - fair enough - but most of them have children. Why would they want to have anything to do with us?"
Discussion and Recommendations
In any prison, it is clearly important that positive relationships exist between staff and prisoners and amongst prisoners themselves. Prisoners live in close proximity and there is a general acceptance and understanding that they try to get along for everyone's benefit. When relationships start to break down then positive staff involvement can go a long way to solving this. When staff at all levels invest time in their relationships with prisoners then the ability to intervene before problems occur is significantly enhanced.
Our investigation suggests that positive staff relationships are particularly crucial for the wellbeing of older prisoners. Clearly staff are not there to befriend prisoners. Yet without caring staff, some elderly prisoners would have no one who cares about them at all. It is to the credit of many staff that they go beyond what is expected of them and show that they demonstrate real compassion for the prisoners they are charged with looking after.
Given the importance of maintaining positive family relationships, staff training, facilities and provisions, relating to visits, should reflect the specific needs and requirements of older prisoners and their visitors.