Prison populations across the world are increasing. In the United Kingdom, numbers have doubled in the last two decades, and older prisoners now constitute the fastest growing section of the prison population. One key reason for this shifting prisoner demographic is the growing numbers of men convicted of ‘historic’ sexual offences, many of whom are imprisoned for the first time in old age, and housed in prisons not suited to their needs. These demographic changes have profound consequences, including increased demand for health and social care in prison, and rising numbers of anticipated deaths in custody.
Using the findings from a recently completed study of palliative care in prison, this paper proposes that older prisoners face a ‘double burden’ when incarcerated. This double burden means that as well as being deprived of their liberty, older people experience additional suffering by not having their health and wellbeing needs met. For some, this double burden includes a ‘de facto life sentence’, whereby because of their advanced age and the likelihood that they will die in prison, they effectively receive a life sentence for a crime that would not normally carry a life sentence. There has been little popular or academic debate concerning the ethical and justice questions that this double burden raises.
Drawing on the work of Wacquant and others, the paper proposes that these changes are best understood as unplanned but reasonably foreseeable consequences of neoliberal penal policies. Although the paper focuses on the UK (which by comparison with other European countries has high rates of imprisonment), many of the challenges discussed are emerging in other countries across the world. This paper illustrates starkly how neoliberal policies and discourses have shaped the expansion and composition of the prison population with its consequent implications for health and justice.