There's plenty of evidence to confirm that one of the largest growing groups within our prison system is that of the over 65's. Last night's ITV Tonight documentary 'Pensioners Behind bars' had a stab at raising some of the issues, but typically managed to miss the main point completely.
Yes we were treated to some images from prisons such as HMP Norwich which is one of several that have specially adapted wings for the elderly and disabled, but we didn't see that wing. We heard the governor talking about how the prison system has had to cope with an ageing prison population, and for those listening carefully you would have heard him give a small clue to one of the real and disgraceful issues that this programme missed entirely. In passing he referred to having to cater for the particular special needs of this group, including dementia.
Hang on a minute, why would there be prisoners in prison suffering from dementia? Surely they should be in a care home or something? The fact is that HMP Norwich and other specialist units elsewhere house a significant number of elderly and infirm prisoners on indeterminate sentences with nowhere for them to go. I'm sure the Parole Board would dearly love to release most of this group to more appropriate supervised care provision, but in my experience they really are deemed the 'undeserving' and every facility either finds endless reasons why they are not suitable or not funded to take them. The funny thing is that if you become mentally ill in prison you can be transferred to a secure mental health facility. There is no similar provision if you are just old and demented.
Make no mistake, this group pose a very sad picture indeed as they shuffle around, either limbless or confined permanently to wheelchairs in an often confused state of mind. Maybe the prison service did not allow access for fear of stirring up a public outcry? Maybe the tv producers just didn't know or didn't want to know? Instead they highlighted cases of bright intelligent pensioners who all made poor judgement calls that put them well the wrong side of the law, and they all ended up in jail as a result.
To be honest I think they all deserved jail, but I would remind readers that in years gone by I think I would have been supervising virtually all of them on what we used to call 'straight' probation orders, ie with no particular extra requirements. In effect the probation service has ruled itself out of taking this group on, because that's what successive governments have ordered us to do. Remember that probation used to be a period of time that allowed a person to demonstrate that they could stop offending and lead a law-abiding life with some appropriate assistance from a probation officer. What a brilliant idea! But it got turned into a punishment per se, and that's basically why we are where we are now with an ever increasing prison population.
A straight probation order would work perfectly well in virtually all the cases I saw highlighted in this tv documentary, with the state getting it's pound of flesh punishment-wise by means of Proceeds of Crime measures.