Older prisoners are the fastest growing group in jails, with the number aged 60 and over more than trebling since 2002, from 1,511 to 5,176. Those aged 50 to 59, often with health conditions that have prematurely aged them, have increased from 3,300 to 8,600.
Offenders aged over 50 now make up 17 per cent of the prison population, up from seven per cent in 2002, and are projected to increase from 13,200 to more than 17,000 by 2026, according to the study by the Prison Reform Trust revealed in The Telegraph.
The growth has been driven by a dramatic increase in the length of sentences imposed on offenders through tougher criminal justice laws introduced by successive Conservative governments, as well as Labour administrations led by Sir Tony Blair.
All major crimes from manslaughter and grievous bodily harm to burglary and knife offences have seen jail terms rise by at least 47 per cent and up to 79 per cent since 2008. More historic sex crime investigations have accelerated the rate of increase, with 44 per cent of inmates aged over 50 in jail for sexual offences.
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that the growing numbers of the elderly posed major challenges for the design of prisons and healthcare as more suffered physical infirmity and age-related illnesses such as dementia.
“People who would have been released before they had those needs are not going to be released because their sentences are 10, 20 or 30 years longer than they used to be,” said Mr Dawson, a former prison governor.
“There has been a bit of a hump in the statistics because of historic sex offences, but the growth of the elderly population is pretty much baked in because sentences are so much longer.”
‘Grey’ wings possible for older inmates
A new Ministry of Justice (MoJ) strategy for elderly prisoners is due later this year. But new prisons are already setting aside a percentage of cells specially for the elderly with grab rails, wheelchair access and specialist bathroom facilities. There could also be “grey” wings and in-jail day centres.
Mr Dawson said prison regimes, traditionally focused on training and work to get criminals into jobs on release, would have to be adapted because of the numbers of inmates aged over 65.
“A prison day built around work doesn’t make sense if you are over retirement age,” he said.
It was also harder to resettle them into care homes or the community because of the stigma of their criminality and lack of family connections.
“A lot of older prisoners say they would rather die in prison and be surrounded by people they have got to know,” said Mr Dawson.
Surge in over-50s dying of natural causes
The number of over-50s in jail dying from natural causes jumped from 84 to 184 in a decade. There are now 315 prisoners aged 80 or over and at least a dozen in their 90s.
This will only increase as the prison population rises from 79,000 to 98,500 by 2026. There are nearly 7,000 offenders already in jail on life sentences as the minimum term for murder has risen from 12 to 21 years in a decade.
The trust’s report found, however, that the public’s perception of sentencing is out of kilter with reality. While the average sentence has increased from 13.8 months to 18.9 months since 2009, 75 per cent of the public in a poll of 1,844 adults believed they became shorter.
The MoJ said longer sentences for violent and sex offenders kept people safe and boosted confidence in criminal justice. With an extra 20,000 places planned, it said it was developing a strategy to “help meet the challenges of an ageing prison population”.