UK: Inhumane Treatment of Elderly Prisoners

Cardiff Amnesty is working with activists from around the UK to raise awareness of the inhumane use of confinement-in-cell across the network of Her Majesty’s Prisons and Young Offender Institutes (YOIs). We continue to call for the UK Government to end this practice that an Amnesty report has stated ‘could amount to a breach of the prohibition of torture’ (Forgotten Behind Bars, p.7). Since March 2020, the use of this ‘cruel, inhuman [and] degrading treatment’ (FBB, p. 7) has increased dramatically in British prisons as a pandemic response measure to the dismay of activists and professionals alike. The UK Prison Inspectorate noted in the summer of 2021 that these extreme measures held a ‘significant cost to the welfare and progression of prisoners, most of whom are locked in their cells for 22.5 hours a day’ (HM Inspectorate of Prisons). This same report noted that prisoners ‘felt drained, despondent, depleted, helpless and without hope.’.

As part of our campaign we have gathered moving testimony from UK prisoners that attests to the Inspectorate’s statements. Sincere thanks to the Cardiff University Law School’s Innocence Project who collected many of these personal stories in their work with prisoners and their families.

While the practice of excessive cellular confinement (with in-cell time of 22-23 hours each day) was less common before Covid-19 it disproportionately affected the most vulnerable prisoners. This blog post will focus on the impact this cruel practice has on elderly prisoners.

Several members of an Innocence Project support group shared the heartbreaking story of elderly Mr X:

“Mr X has severe dementia and every day he believes he has a taxi arriving to take him home to his wife.  Consequently, he refuses to return to his cell until the staff tell him to get his coat because his taxi has arrived.  He then enters the cell to get his coat upon which the door is slammed.  He then spends many hours, including during the night, banging the door trying to get out to reach his taxi.”

Similarly, Mr K. Isham wrote to the Inside Time magazine in October of 2017 to share his frustration at the treatment of elderly prisoner’s:

“More and more people are being sent to prison who should be in care homes.

Picture this, a man confined to his bed, elderly suffering with dementia, screaming out in agony from chronic bedsores, while he lies in his soiled clothes in his urine-soaked bed. 

If you read that in a newspaper, if that poor man was in a care home, there would be angry headlines, letters to the authorities and condemnation from society.  But if that man is a convicted criminal and he’s in prison people just shrug and say “so what?”

Does this man not deserve the level of care befitting his age and medical conditions?  Just because he’s an offender does that make him less of a human being?  Due to the witch hunt around historical sex offences, nearly half of the prison population are aged 50+.  I understand the need to punish offenders, but is prison the best way?  You certainly cannot rehabilitate someone who is unable to remember what happened yesterday let alone a crime committed decades ago.

This is not “punishment” it is nothing but torture, nothing less and in a supposedly civilised country in the 21st century.  Keeping these people in prison should turn the stomach of anyone with a shred of humanity and morality.

There are secure care homes where they could be cared for properly.  Or is it cheaper to stick them in prison as the government don’t have to pay pensions and disability allowance.  What a disgrace.”

Prisoners of all ages that we spoke with have noted the physical effects of cellular confinement and how these most impact elderly prisoners. We heard that ‘joint pains, back ache and a profound loss of muscle mass’ are all too common for all confined prisoners; as are ‘bed sores’ and ‘blood pooling in our ankles’ for those with particularly limited mobility. Prisoners felt that the pandemic measures had impacted access to appropriate medical care alongside exacerbating physical and mental health concerns. One relative described a deeply troubling incident when a prisoner was denied transfer to a hospital for palliative end of life care and was instead forced to spend these final days isolated in prison.

Amnesty International’s Forgotten Behind Bars report stated that ‘Covid-19 has laid bare years of underinvestment and neglect of health services in prisons’ (p. 22).

We continue to urge Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Justice, and Victoria Atkins, Minister of State for Prisons and Probation, to take action based on the findings of both the Prisons Inspectorate and Amnesty International. This inhumane practice must be acknowledged and protections put in place to ensure it is never again utilised by any UK prison.

If you would like to support this campaign or the work of Cardiff Amnesty more widely you can reach us at

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