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Howard League blog · 14 Oct 2016

Dying in prison

It always used to be the case that prisons were full of young men. Nowadays, prisons hold a lot more older men.

People are considered old in prison at 50, partly because the environment is so unhealthy and partly because they have probably led unhealthy lives with precarious housing, a poor diet and a history of abusing drugs and alcohol. In addition to these people is an increasing number of old men sent to prison for historic sex offences.

This means that more men are dying in prison from ‘natural causes’. The Howard League gets notification every time anyone dies and as I was looking over the list I noticed that more people are dying from diseases they are known to suffer from in prison, as opposed to spending their last days either in a hospital or a hospice.

Looking back over the years this was not the case. People known to be suffering from cancer or other terminal illness would normally have been transferred to a hospital for their last days or, in some cases, given compassionate release to die at home.

I looked at 121 of the notifications we have received this year of people who have died and 76 died in hospital, whereas 45 died in prison.

I visited a high security prison a year or so ago and was shown its ‘dying room’. If the man was still in contact with family, they could come and spend his final hours inside the prison.

It is notable that several died in elderly prisoner units. Some prisons have set up palliative care suites to cater for prisoners with terminal illnesses; many of them are not elderly but are suffering from cancer. Some men were in the prison healthcare unit apparently suffering from a range of long term problems; many were only in their 50s.

I visited a high security prison a year or so ago and was shown its ‘dying room’. If the man was still in contact with family, they could come and spend his final hours inside the prison.

It seems to me that part of the reason for the increase in deaths inside prison is simply the shortage of staff. You would think that prisons would be keen to transfer terminally-ill prisoners to a hospice or hospital, but that requires prison officers to escort the prisoner and there are simply not enough staff to spare.

There is also a risk aversion and fear of publicity about letting men who have committed sex offences out of prison, even if it is only to die.

I don’t have an answer to this, all I can say is that I find it terribly sad for everyone, including staff. And, expensive.


  • Ricky Porter says:

    While nobody can deny that the crimes some of these people were originally imprisoned for were nothing short of absolutely horrendous, we have to ask ourselves whether it is justifiable to keep someone in prison until the day they die.

    We live in a day and age where the average person lives for around 83 years, a decent percentage of people live into their 90s, and an ever growing number of people live to the age of 100 and beyond. Many of the people who live this long are likely to have deteriorated to a physical condition where it would be practically impossible for them to reoffend if they were paroled from their sentences. And it has also been shown in the past, for example the turnaround by Myra Hindley during the first 25 years she served of her life sentence, that even some of the worst offenders can cease to pose a threat and achieve rehabilitation without living to a great age or suffering a decline in their physical health which would have rendered them incapable of reoffending.

    And with taxpayer’s money under an increasingly great strain, might it not be better to let the oldest and most decrepit of offenders out of prison, and perhaps spend the money saved on imprisoning people who are still very much a threat to society? Or spending it on our public services?

    I am of the opinion that whole life sentences should be eliminated (they create too many problems in prison, not to mention how uneconomic and impractical they are likely to become in many cases) and that a prisoner should receive an automatic Parole Board review at the age of, say, 70 years.

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