Most of us want to live a long life, but very few want to grow old, goes a traditional saying. This is hardly surprising when taking into consideration the prospect that the negative stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory practices surrounding old age – also known as ageism – will somehow affect us all. Such potential ageism raises even greater challenges in the specific context of a prison, where daily life and future perspectives of older people are heavily influenced by prison officers and psychosocial services, and are shaped by a physical and social environment that is geared towards ‘the needs of younger adults’. Until recently, hardly any reference whatsoever had been made to the situation of oldsters in prison, which was becoming more and more problematic as prisons are increasingly populated by older people. A Belgian study of 2018, recently published in book format – The Older Prisoner in the Palgrave Studies in Prisons and Penology series, has not only demonstrated the weight of studying ageing in prison, but has also raised more questions about how our prison system – as we know it – is failing its elders.
In this post, I will turn the spotlight on some of the problems and issues that are faced by those who are spending later life behind bars, by examining the way ageing is viewed and dealt with in prison, while also outlining some suggestions on how we can support change.
During my own fieldwork that took place inside two prisons in the northern part of Belgium (2013-18), I often encountered prison staff members sharing jokes or demonstrating implicit negative thoughts and behaviours toward older people without conscious awareness. “They should’ve known better at their age” is only one example of how prison staff tried to legitimize the lack of attention or efforts towards older adults. Dismissing and contrasting older people with “young people, who have a future ahead of them and still can get back on the right path” was another one. Or what to think of the bold statement that “there is no life left in these men”? In a similar vein, poorly informed prison staff may also treat natural effects of ageing as a disease or, conversely, may dismiss a treatable pathology as a feature of old age. These are just some of the real-life examples that feed into ageism and have far reaching consequences. Such stereotypes, prejudices and attitudes may lead to discrimination, limit equality of opportunity, and can result in bad health outcomes. If you think that this only affects the health and wellbeing of old(er) people, think again! Ageism affects us all. It does not only have harmful effects on individuals that are subjected to it, but also impacts those who are subjecting others to it. We know from previous research that people who are ageist, also tend to live shorter lives and live out their lives in worse health (Levy et al., 2002; RSPH, 2018).
Older prisoners are currently not receiving dignified treatment and appropriate care, as prison staff is yet insufficiently aware of the process of ageing, and the individual needs of older people. We have taken the first steps to raise awareness of older adults in prison and their needs in the research project Oscar, i.e. practice oriented research that provides training to, and supports, prison staff to find a proper way to care, and cater, for older adults in Belgian prisons. Yet, prison staff members indicate that a person-centered approach is at odds with the way our prisons are structured and shaped to date, and the rules and rigid procedures they must adhere to. These include the ‘staff rotating system’, ‘uniform treatment’, and prevailing ‘security measures’ to name but a few.
Although there is some – anecdotal – evidence of ageism in prison, we still know (too) little about how older people in prison and prison professionals think, feel and act towards age and ageing. So, there is also a strong need to further unpack the way(s) in which prison actors show stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination towards themselves or others based on age.We need much more research and data to understand the extent of ageism and its implications for people in prison. That is why, as of October 2021, a new research project examining ageism in prison will be launched (funded by FWO, 2021-24). This project will adopt a multi-methods approach, given the multi-faceted and hidden nature of ageism. We will let ‘older’ people in prison record and reflect on their experiences of ageism, including internalized ageism. We will offer physical age simulation to prison officers in order to reflect on what it means to be unable to participate fully in daily prison life. And we will use ‘vignettes interviewing’ to understand whether the professional expertise of psychosocial service members is fraught with stereotypes associated with ageing.
We know from previous studies that it is possible to reduce ageist attitudes, prejudices and stereotypes through education and intergenerational contact (Burnes et al., 2019). We have only begun to educate prison staff in raising awareness of older adults and their individualized needs. At the same time, we realize that educating staff in itself will not be enough. We must also continue to fundamentally question the existence of these obsolete institutions. Prison actors also seem to suggest that these interventions, such as our support and training initiatives, are only likely to achieve real success if used in combination with a paradigm shift. Small-scale, differentiated and community-integrated detention environments would be likely to create more scope for an approach that reveals the value and strength of people, where staff and inhabitants could build personal relationships, and where people in prison can engage in intergenerational contacts with the community, which are all seen as preventive factors to ageism. This should allow us to contribute to age-friendly detention houses, and by extension to an age-friendly community, that leaves no one behind.
- Burnes, D., Sheppard, C., Henderson, C.R., Wassel, M., Cope, R., Barber, C., Pillemer, K. (2019). Interventions to Reduce Ageism Against Older Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Public Health, 109(8), 1-9. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2019.305123
- Humblet, D. (2021-2024). Ageism in Prison. Research project, funded by FWO. Further information will become available via https://cris.research.vub.be/en/our-projects
- Humblet, D. (2021). The Older Prisoner. Palgrave MacMillan. DOI : 10.1007/978-3-030-60120-1
- Humblet, D., et al. (2019-2021). Naar een introductie en professionalisering van penitentiaire ouderenzorg (‘Oscar’) – Towards an introduction and professionalization of aged care in corrections (‘Oscar’). Research project, funded by Odisee University college of applied sciences. www.odisee.be/oscar
- Levy, B., Slade, M.D., Kunkel, S.R., Kasl, S.V. (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 261-70. DOI: 10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1991
- Royal Society for Public Health (2018). That Age Old Question. How attitudes to ageing affect our health and wellbeing. Available at: https://www.rsph.org.uk/uploads/assets/uploaded/a01e3aa7-9356-40bc-99c81b14dd904a41.pdf [Date Accessed: 16/08/2021]