Staff in one establishment felt that the job they did with elderly prisoners was not considered in the same light as working with the 'mainstream' elements of the population. They evidenced this by saying that they were almost always short of staff:
"I couldn't tell you the last time we had a full complement of staff down here. It means we can't get these old guys out to socialise with one another as much as we should be able to."
In their view, this shortfall of staff prevented them from offering a consistent, meaningful regime in their area. As a result, elderly prisoners were spending long periods of time in their cells watching television. They pointed out that this unfortunately bears some resemblance to the (perhaps stereotypical) image of the elderly in a mediocre care home all sitting in front of a television watching daytime television.
It is interesting to note that a number of prisoners defended the staff regarding the regime and how much time they got out of their cells:
"We seem to be locked up a lot. It's not the staff's fault. They are always short and they have a lot of paperwork and stuff to do so if there's not enough of them we seem to be locked up."
The staff appeared to be well aware of the differences involved with working with elderly prisoners. They also indicated that these demands were sometimes at odds with the wider expectations of the role of a prison officer. They are not - as one put it - employed to be "some sort of care assistant". In another prison staff spoke openly of their willingness to step outside their usual role to help the prisoners. Examples were shared where staff acted in a manner more usually expected of carers than prison officers, helping prisoners to the toilet or into bed when they were struggling. There also appeared to be an acknowledgement amongst some staff that their colleagues ought on occasion to show a bit more common sense:
"I had one old guy on my flat and he was going to go to the visits. He had on his slippers because his shoes were hurting him. He was stopped and told you're not going unless you get some shoes on. I mean, come on, there comes a point when common sense has to come into it surely? That's just nonsense and undoing any good work we're trying to do with these guys."
Amongst some staff there appeared to be a willingness to go beyond the role and really develop a relationship with prisoners which enriched their experience of life in custody:
"Obviously it's a different job that we do down here as opposed to working up the stairs. You're not facing the same risks in terms of violence but some of these old guys have committed horrific crimes, they're not in here for stealing motors."
Discussion and Recommendations
The Scottish Prison Service have stand-alone strategies and training packages for staff who manage distinct prisoner populations namely, sex offenders, young people in custody, women offenders and dementia awareness. Specialist training packages could also be developed and delivered to equip staff with the skills and knowledge to meet the complex needs of caring for older prisoners.
It is also important to acknowledge that not all staff are equally suited to working with elderly prisoners. This role demands some particular qualities, experience and skills. Suitable officers should be selected for the care of older prisoners and provided with appropriate training.
In society at large there are special arrangements in place to deal with elderly people who require additional support. This may be in the form of housing adaptations or specialist healthcare arrangements. Similar measures should be in place in prison for dealing with elderly prisoners as part of a long term strategy for their management.
Providing for appropriate socialising opportunities for elderly prisoners is clearly a problem. It was apparent from both the staff and prisoner perspective that outside influences such as staff shortages were having an impact on relationships. Staffing levels for this section of the population should be reviewed to ensure that appropriately trained staff are available and to provide for as much continuity in staffing as possible. It may be that the solution lies in defining more clearly the role of staff working with elderly prisoners. It is important for both staff and prisoners that the care and treatment of elderly prisoners is seen as a valued role within the prison service.