prison-guard-locks-a-door-012The prison population is ageing fast, due in part to longer sentences and increasing numbers of prosecutions for historic sexual offences. The over-60s are now the fastest growing age group in prisons – numbers increased by 146% between 2002 and 2014 – and their social care needs, no different to those of older people outside prison, may be exacerbated by their surroundings. In 2013, the House of Commons justice select committee reported that many older prisoners were being held in establishments that could not meet their needs.

With the Care Act 2014 requiring that local authorities and prison staff work together to respond to the social care requirements of prisoners, there are greater opportunities for occupational therapists (OTs) working with older people and those who are disabled.

For young offenders, who often have mental health problems, learning disability or difficulties, or have suffered head injuries, OTs can offer training in basic life skills that can make a significant difference and improve the chances of rehabilitation.

“The prison service itself often provides education opportunities but actually [these young offenders] are not able to engage,” -Stewart says. “Their concentration is very poor; they’ve failed before. It tends to be people who’ve accessed education previously who can access it [in prison].”

Research by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England suggested that 23% to 32% of young people in custody have a generalised learning disability, while a 1997 study from the Office for National Statistics found that 95% of people in young offender institutions aged between 16 and 20 years had a mental disorder. Some 60% of young people who offend have difficulties with speech, language and communication, and half of this group have poor or very poor communication skills.

OTs can also help offenders develop “healthy occupations” that will give them a better chance of not returning to destructive habits and reoffending once they are released. “It’s not realistic to think that every offender will come out and get a job, so it’s things like developing healthy habits, healthy lifestyles,” Stewart says. “It’s about finding things that you can do, other than unhealthy occupations.”

The Roots and Shoots gardening project in HMP Grampian, where inmates grow produce for the prison kitchen, is one example. But schemes like this do more than just develop interests, Stewart says: working in a group helps participants develop communication skills that will help them hold down a job outside.

There is no doubt that working in prisons, for professionals from any field, is challenging. “There’s aggression and violence,” Stewart says. “There’s a lot of drug abuse and drug dependency. But it’s also, I think, massively exciting as well, because there’s a real potential to make a difference to people’s lives. You can actually see them for an extended period of time -developing skills.”

Skills development: assessing prisoners’ needs

Giulia Grantham, a senior OT in social care at Essex county council, is developing a link with Chelmsford prison that will see OTs work with disabled and older prisoners.

“People who are in a prison environment obviously face restrictions, but we don’t want to further those restrictions and disadvantage them compared to anyone else there. If they’re not able to work in prison because the doors aren’t wide enough, or there’s no ramp, then we’re not promoting their wellbeing or supporting their rehabilitation.

“If somebody in the community couldn’t access a library because the doors were too narrow for their wheelchair, we’d bring that service to them. We need to be able to do that in prison too.

“The only way I was able to carry out an assessment like that was by assessing a prisoner’s ability to move around the room and to listen to instructions, for instance to change direction – that allows you to see if someone has motor and processing problems.

“One OT in my team will be the link worker with the prison, and will then share his knowledge with the other therapists until the whole team has the confidence and ability to assess in prison. I’m really passionate and excited about beginning to educate more OTs about this kind of work.”

Guardian