A new guide published this week by Clinks and RECOOP offers advice on the needs and rights of older offenders. Over 50s make up 12% of the prison population and are the fastest growing age group within prison. The Justice Committee recently found that prisons are failing to cope with this growth.
Studies have shown that prisoners face worse health problems than the general population, and on average have the health condition of a person 10 years older. However, the Criminal Justice System is set up around the needs and abilities of younger adults, so it is often not well suited to older people.
This is particularly the case for prisons, which often struggle to offer adequate alternatives to physical work for older or retired prisoners, leaving them facing longer periods alone in their cells than other inmates. On release, many older offenders have been inside for many years and may have become ‘institutionalised’, making it harder for them to adjust to life outside.
But how can we respond to this situation as Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations working in criminal justice? Here are five tips:
- Consult with older offender forums (or set one up): I was lucky enough to visit one of the older prisoner forums RECOOP has established, and was impressed to see its members discussing bullying, health services and theft of medications, and planning how to raise these issues with prison authorities. If your prison doesn’t have an older offenders’ forum, get advice from RECOOP on how to set one up. Forums are run by the prisoners themselves, and as one member advises: “The 50+ forum for a prison community is a concept that does and will work as long as the membership is prepared to put some effort into it. It is a vehicle that is being presented to them and should be driven like a Rolls Royce not a Robin Reliant!”
- Know the law: The Equality Act 2010 protects older offenders from unlawful discrimination because of their age, and prisons and probation trusts have to consider whether their services or practices put older (or disabled) offenders at a disadvantage, and make ‘reasonable adjustments’ if they do. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is currently making a legal challenge on behalf of an elderly and disabled prisoner. Consider how you may be able to help criminal justice agencies to meet their legal duties, which they may be finding more challenging with reduced budgets.
- Tailor services for older service users: Provide training to help staff and volunteers to understand the differing needs of older people. For instance, making sure that the language is appropriate – does an older service user want an action plan or are they more focused on a retirement plan?
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: Learn from other organisations that work with this group. You can access sample session plans, needs assessment and retirement planning tools and health information for older offenders from RECOOP’s resource library. Apply for free membership of RECOOPs resource library at http://www.recoop.org.uk/pages/members/index.php
- Download the guide: 'Working with older offenders' is a free short guide produced by Clinks and RECOOP containing information on the needs and rights of older offenders and tips on how VCSE organisations can work with them better. Download it at http://www.clinks.org/criminal-justice/do-it-justice
We would welcome your feedback on the guide and your thoughts on how to work with older offenders. What are your top tips for working with this client group?