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

Location And Environment

During the course of the interviews the topic of location was discussed in some detail. Specifically, prisoners were asked if they would rather be located solely with elderly prisoners or in a mixed age environment. None of the older prisoners wanted to be living with only the elderly population:

"No I quite like some of the young guys. You get a bit of banter with them and it kind of keeps you going a bit."


Some were in favour of a mixed age population, but with some reservations:

"I'd prefer to be with a mix of people but some of the younger guys you know to stay away from. If I did get any hassle I'd hit them with my stick."


Whilst this prisoner was happy to be mixed with a variety of age groups his response demonstrates a concern about his own safety in a mixed age context. The concentration of elderly prisoners located in particular prisons appears to have happened incrementally or by the nature of offence in some cases and not necessarily as part of a strategic approach. This has created challenges in terms of both resourcing and offender management. However there is overwhelming evidence from this study and other studies that older prisoners have better relations when they are managed by a consistent staff group[5].

The majority of prisons in Scotland are in good shape. Most sites have been completely rebuilt or enhanced in the last 15 years. They are bright, modern, well equipped buildings with lift facilities and open areas for prisoners to move around in. There do, however, remain three prisons which are Victorian in style and design. Whilst there have been some adaptations in these prisons, such as in cell toilets in HMP Barlinnie, they are far from modern or comparable with the remainder of the estate.

However there are significant numbers of elderly prisoners in HMPs Barlinnie and Dumfries - two of the sites which have not yet been redeveloped. The numbers in HMP Inverness on the other hand are small both literally and in terms of the percentage of the overall population. Staff at Dumfries raised concerns about the suitability of the design of the prison for elderly prisoners:

"This prison wasn't designed to house older prisoners. At the moment it's not too bad because we are fortunate these guys are well. They are in for long sentences most of them. What happens when they are unwell and we are trying to manage them and provide for their needs in these facilities?"


These staff were conscious of the fact that the majority of their prisoners were currently well but still some of them struggled getting around the prison:

"It's too awkward for me to get to some areas in the prison so I just don't bother."


In this prison the numbers of elderly prisoners represented 12% of the prison population, so the numbers are not small. This is a significant proportion of the overall population.

Table 3: Exercise

How often do you take time in the fresh air (exercise)?

<Table 3: Exercise - How often do you take time in the fresh air (exercise)?>

Eating and Sleeping

Staff were conscious of the fact that many prisoners spent long periods of time without leaving the area where their cell was located because it was not feasible for them to do so. Interviews with prisoners confirmed this:

"We get our meals brought to us in the section because we can't go to the dining hall."


Effectively this means that this particular group of prisoners are isolated from the others within the prison to some degree. They are unable to participate in social dining which is traditionally seen as a means of meeting and mixing with other prisoners, but particularly important in building social networks. This in turn can lead to building positive relationships and a constructive means of relaxing away from the residential environment. Their meals are brought to the residential area within the prison so that they can eat there without having to go through what they described as a nightmare to get to the dining hall.

It is true that a number of prisoners prefer to eat alone in their cells. However, many prisoners in places like HMP Dumfries, where the dining hall is seen as a valued facility, view meals as quality time out of their cell. It is also viewed as a more normal eating experience, being able to sit at a table with all the regular features of eating a meal with other people. There is also something in this about being able to enjoy a social atmosphere which can have a positive impact on an individual's wellbeing and mental health.

Some prisoners were clearly struggling with inappropriate sleeping facilities:

"I'm seventy two and on the top bunk. I'm a lot fitter than my co-pilot, that's why I'm up there.. I am a bit worried that I could fall and hurt myself when I'm trying to get in and out of my bed."


It surely cannot be appropriate to locate anyone in their 70s on a top bunk, irrespective of their apparent or assessed capacity to do so.

Staff were also very concerned about this situation, but felt helpless to do anything about it:

"You've got no idea how difficult it can be trying to place some of the elderly prisoners. At times when we are trying to figure out where to put somebody we are literally having to make an assessment as to who can and who cannot make it up and down to the top bunk. Surely it's not right to put a seventy two year old in the top bunk?"


In prisons where there were pockets of elderly prisoners, they gave mixed responses in terms of their living accommodation and ability to get around the prison. There was a willingness amongst this prisoner group to put a brave face on things but when pressed, it was a different story. It wasn't clear whether this demonstrated a willingness to adapt to the surroundings or a man trying to retain some dignity in a situation which verges on the unacceptable.

Access to facilities

Some interviews were undertaken in modern facilities. These are fairly large sites with some considerable distances between the residential areas and the visits room. This presented difficulties for prisoners with limited mobility. In addition to the distance, some prisoners disclosed other age-related factors inhibiting their participation in activities. For example, one prisoner explained:

"It's a bit embarrassing but half the time I wouldn't go anywhere because I need to make sure I can get access to the toilet. When I need to go I need to go there and then, it's embarrassing."


A large number of prisoners referred in interview to dignity issues in relation to access to the toilet. How staff responded to this varied depending on whether or not, according to the prisoners, the staff member was used to working with the older men:

"Some of the staff are great, they'll say things like, 'Don't worry about it old yin, there's no rush.' Whilst others just march off down the corridor and stand at the other end waiting on you!"


Throughout the interviews prisoners were complimentary about the staff working with them regularly, saving their negative comments to refer to staff who worked with them on ad-hoc basis. Staff themselves during focus groups showed a good level of awareness in relation to the differences between working with the elderly and the general prisoner population. There was however an element of frustration evident with some staff. They had recognised that because of the prison environment there wasn't much for the prisoners to do and had been creative with innovative ideas for prisoners to pass some of their time which were age relevant. One example of this was a club on a specific day of the week where the prisoners could get to the area fairly easily where it was being held. They had the chance to chat and listen to music that they liked. The staff member was very positive about how the prisoners had responded to the club. Unfortunately the club had been stopped and the member of staff wasn't sure why but was left demotivated as a result of this.


In all of the sites we visited there were issues with the environment which impacted on the living experience for the elderly prisoners. One example was an elderly prisoner who had to use a wheelchair to get around, yet the wheelchair did not fit through the cell door. He told us that he has to get himself out of the chair, collapse the chair, drag it into the cell, open it up again and get back into it. He explained that most of the time this was done with the assistance of another prisoner.

Staff and prisoners feel the current accommodation and buildings which are available are unsuitable. Prisoners interviewed reported that they feel staff are doing the best they can for them in a difficult situation. This extends to both their cellular accommodation and engagement in purposeful activity.

Discussion and Recommendations

For all prisoners, it is the responsibility of all prison staff to ensure that their treatment and conditions are appropriate. Older prisoners may need to be treated differently because of their age or infirmity, in order to ensure that their needs are met. Creating specialist provision for older prisoners in particular locations would enable the Scottish Prison Service to make suitable adaptations to the environment and create teams of staff who are dedicated and trained to work with the elderly.

In general, the Scottish Prison Service should be applauded for its estates redevelopment programme which has modernised the overall facilities. However, prisoners, prison officers and managers express difficulties in trying to make do with facilities which are less than adequate for an elderly population. Whilst there appears to be a reasonable level of good will to make the best of difficult situations, inappropriate facilities are creating risks. These include:

  • risks to injury of inappropriate sleeping arrangements and lack of accommodation for prisoners with poor mobility;
  • loss of dignity for prisoners with health problems leading to incontinence;
  • lack of access to meaningful activity; and
  • reduced access to social engagement with visitors and other prisoners.

In an era where there seems to be litigious action taken by groups of prisoners more readily than before, then there is certainly the possibility of challenge from the ageing population over aspects of their care.

This review found evidence of prison officers taking the initiative to develop activities tailored to the needs of elderly prisoners. Staff and prisoners were positive about the impact of the music and social club yet it was removed from the regime. It would appear that a combination of poor communication between elements of the staff group and pressure on resources led to the termination of an activity seen as beneficial both for, and by the population concerned.

With a small number of elderly prisoners these difficulties whilst unacceptable, are being managed - often because both staff and prisoners go out of their way to ensure the prisoner gets the assistance they need. However as the population gets older and there are larger numbers of elderly prisoners this will place greater pressure on the accommodation available. This should be anticipated in future estate development plans.