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Buddy system helps fast-growing number of elderly prisoners

A ‘buddy system’ has been set up by a pioneering charity to help cope with the fast-growing number of elderly prisoners.

Leading support organisation RECOOP (Resettlement and Care of Older ex-Offenders and Prisoners) says the innovative scheme takes the pressure off other parts of the creaking system.

RECOOP is campaigning for changes in national policy and says urgent action and greater understanding is needed to cope with the expanding jail population.

Older prisoners make up 17 per cent of the prison population – this is projected to grow by 10.6 per cent by the end of June 2021, including a projected increase in the over-70s of 31.3 per cent.

Problems are exacerbated by health and mobility issues, dementia, and depression with 90 per cent of them having a moderate or serious health condition.

Sympathy is often also in short supply for older prisoners, many of whom have been incarcerated because of historic sex offences.

RECOOP Chief Officer Paul Grainge said: “Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has a growing complex challenge.

“RECOOP developed a prisoner Buddy Support Service and following the introduction of the 2014 Care Act, formalised the training and helped adapt the national Care Certificate modules to fit a prison setting. Buddies help offer support and assistance to fellow prisoners in need.

“The main objective is to empower and support vulnerable individuals to control and maintain their independence, good health and well-being. This has increased both confidence and self-esteem, promoting better mental health with reduced anxiety and increasing resilience.

“To date we’ve trained more than 200 Buddies in 10 prisons. In one prison we have 10 who have also trained as Dementia Friends as this continues to be difficult disease to manage and support in such a setting. 

“The impact of the training and role on those delivering it has been staggering. We have now developed new EOLC and Bereavement Training Modules. We are working with our prison partners and external organisations to offer an external supervision service for the Buddies.  

“We have seen a continual demand for this support, but more troubling is the number of Buddies who are now supporting individuals with palliative and end of life care (EOLC).

“We’re seeing an increase in those resigned to the fact that they will die in custody. This might due to the combination of age and sentence length or resulting from a life limiting diagnosis.

“The weight of this, both emotionally and psychologically, is detrimentally impacting on both their physical and mental health.“   

The RECOOP charity was set up in 2008 to specifically support this population and meet their differing needs.

Initially the charity worked to support those with health and mobility vulnerabilities, being subject to abuse, manipulation and bullying. This is a group that tend not to grumble or moan and who are recognised by the World Health Organisation as being ‘under served.’

The charity has worked with 25 prisons nationally over the last year providing a range of support services including day centres, mental health and well-being clinics, older workshops, resettlement training courses and in-cell distraction packs. Last year we had over 35,000 visits through our prison day centre services.

Mr Grainge added: “Both the NHS and local authorities are also struggling with the pressures caused by hospital discharge delays where patients require additional support to maintain their independence once they go home.

RECOOP delivers a Buddy Support Worker Training Programme which was developed for use in prisons by adapting standards from the National Care Certificate. These are the occupational standards to which workers across Health & Social Care services adhere.

The 14-Module Programme is currently delivered by RECOOP on a full-time basis across the Devon Cluster (HMPs Dartmoor, Channings Wood and Exeter).  Other prisons have opted for one-off training programmes.

Mr Grainge is also calling for a new national strategy to deal with the ageing prison population. He said: “A new national strategy is needed for dealing with older offenders. The problem is getting bigger all the time and we are underprepared as a nation.”

“Older prisoners have complex needs including sensory impairments, multiple healthcare needs, disabilities and poor mobility. They are more likely to be retired and need meaningful activity and social connections.

“In many cases, older prisoners, who may be serving life sentences, or those who are brought to justice later in life, face the stark reality of the probability of dying in prison.

“A prison is a particularly difficult place in which to be old. The needs of older prisoners are often overlooked, as many pose no obvious behavioural problems for the prison authorities.

“Their physical frailty is a disadvantage when they are incarcerated alongside younger prisoners and bullying and victimisation can be a problem.”

Mr Grainge added: “We’ve seen little development or implementation of the good practices included within the recent Model Operational Delivery for Older Prisoners guidance. As this population continues to grow, the management time, resources and cost needed to meet their specific needs will also increase. 

“Without a National Strategy it’s difficult to see a future joined up consistent approach to meet the growing need.”

Mr Grainge, who recently addressed the Ministry of Justice’s Criminal Justice Strategy Team, said some progress was being made but sustained pressure was needed to deliver change.

The RECOOP publication A Different Sense Of Time highlights the unique needs of older prisoners and presents a cost-effective portfolio of initiatives.

RECOOP’s services have been recognised as good practice by HM Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP), Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) and Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). 

These include prison staff training, the in-prison buddy support worker training programme, healthy eating and living, activities, day centres and transition resettlement course. 

RECOOP, which has worked with more than 60 prisons, operates under the auspices of Dorset-based charitable housing association BCHA.

Mr Grainge added: “We are gaining increasing national recognition for our work and have contributed to seminal policy documents. 

“We are a registered charity working to empower older prisoners to take control of their lives, to optimise their physical and mental health and to remain free from re-offending. 

“We are one of the very few organisations working with specifically with this group and aspire to be the leader in the delivery of knowledge and expertise to older people who come into contact with the criminal justice system and offer support to the staff who work with them.

“The development of our activities is influenced by our service-users and key stakeholders within the prison service. 

“The over-arching aim of RECOOP is to reduce re-offending through the provision of meaningful activity, resettlement services and by addressing the health and social care inequalities faced by this marginalised under-served group.”

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