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Lock up your pensioners

To many people who have been there – and to some others who have not – Kingston Prison in Portsmouth is a better class of nick. That reputation does not rest on the appearance of the place, which is typical of when it was built in the late 1870s, with high grey stone walls and massive gates which close behind a vanload of arriving prisoners with an emphatic thump and clang, just to let them know where they are. What has made Kingston special is the regime there – how the prisoners are treated, how they get on with the prison officers, what is on offer to ease them through their sentence. A 1997 report by the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Ramsbotham, called it “the Kingston way” – a relaxed atmosphere based on treating the prisoners as individuals instead of an anonymous mass of losers, for example by using their first names immediately they got into Reception. At the same time there were assumptions about the prisoners' behaviour; no-one was expected to smash up their cell or assault a prison officer or throw boiling water over another prisoner in the dinner queue. For anyone who had done time in places like Wandsworth or Parkhurst it must have been bewildering, even disorientating.

Kingston is different because, simply, it was told to be. It was built as a local prison but some time later it was caught up in the Home Office scheme of allocating particular roles to certain prisons. Before the war it took men serving Preventive Detention – long sentences imposed in response to their previous record and not on the offence they were in court for. (Preventive Detention was abolished, in a supposedly humane and progressive act, by the Wilson government who then replaced it with the Extended Sentence, which amounted to the same thing.) During the war – when plainly it was not a better class of nick – it was a naval detention centre and then a place where they held Borstal boys who had been recalled by the Home Office. From 1969 it came into its present role as a prison exclusively for men serving life sentences – the only one in Europe – which means that most of its inmates were murderers. Everyone sent to Kingston was sifted, to ensure their reputation for compliance with the system, for keeping their head down and their cell clean and tidy.

More Prisoners
A prison containing carefully selected lifers will be a prison with a lot of “domestic” murderers, often men who have killed their wife in jealousy at her having an affair. (Although one “domestic” killer went rather beyond that. Archibald Hall, who had been a butler, killed his half brother, a former lover, an ex-MP and a prostitute. He died, aged 78, in Kingston in October last year). It is also likely to be a prison with an unusually high proportion of older prisoners. When he inspected the prison in 1997 David Ramsbotham found 46 per cent of the prisoners were over 50 and sometimes infirm – one of them was an 87-year-old sufferer from Alzheimer's, on a Zimmer frame. “I'm sorry,” he said of this man, “but I think that is a nonsense”. He complained about a lack of strategy in the Home Office on how to manage older prisoners and perhaps in response to that Kingston now has a special wing for them, with Stannah stair lifts, specially equipped baths, alarm buttons in every room. There is no report on which TV programme that wing likes to watch in the late afternoon but it can be assumed there is a keen interest in Countdown.

It is as well that at least one prison is getting ready to handle more elderly inmates because the number of over 60s being sent to prison is on the increase. In 1989 there were 345 of them; in 2000 this had rocketed up to 1138; among them were 250 in their 70s and 21 who were over 80. One favoured explanation for this trend is that older people are turning to crime more readily to top up their pensions and that courts, still applying the Michael Howard “prison works” doctrine are reacting more punitively (Britain is already among Europe's leaders in the numbers it imprisons.) The Prudential insurance company recently surveyed rising pensioner crime and found that over 100,000 had either committed a deliberate offence or considered doing so. Some go in for defrauding banks, or flogging smuggled cigarettes and alcohol; others resort to drug dealing, armed robbery or, more traditionally, shoplifting. Some of them cleverly exploit an image of senile frailty, tottering into a bank or pretending to be confused when they are caught at the supermarket check-out. The Prudential did not suggest that the technique of deception by playing on others' false assumptions may have been learned from political leaders, or operators in the crime and penal system – or insurance companies anxious to sell more policies.

Poverty Line
Well, it cannot be denied that pensioners are having a hard time. Help the Aged says that in 2000/2001 there were 27 percent of them living below the official poverty line, which is 50 percent of average earnings and that two thirds are scraping along under conditions of medium or high deprivation. “The older you are,” they say, “The more likely you are to live in poverty. Low incomes are closely linked with ill health, disability and lower life expectancy.” But this is nothing new and it cannot explain the rise in pensioner crime; pensioners have never lived off the fat of the land and have never been intended to. They are past the age of maximum exploitative capacity so they don't get a wage, which means they descend into the lower reaches of poverty. That is why political leaders have always been able to play for votes on promises of giving the old a better deal, from Lloyd George in 1909: “This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable war against poverty and squalidness” to Labour's less colourful pledge in 2001: “we honour your lifetime of work by ensuring that you share fairly in the nation's rising prosperity, and we are committed to tackling pensioner poverty”.

So what has changed, to explain the rise in pensioner crime and imprisonment? One obvious factor would be that the old are not immune to the widespread cynicism about the effectiveness of political parties to keep their promises, for which New Labour and their carefully crafted image-making must bear a lot of the responsibility. Another is the change in the way pensioners are now perceived. The cosy image of saintly, silver-haired geriatrics smiling out of their cardigans at adoring grandchildren, relaxing in the rewards for a lifetime of exploitation, is no longer valid. Recent events have upset the whole economy of pensions, which was based on the assumption that capitalism's affairs were predictable and controllable. There are plans now for a seismic change which will extend the age of retirement, some say even to virtually abolish it so that workers have to keep working until they die. As Professor Alan Walker of the Growing Older Programme at Sheffield University put it, last May:

“Modern society has regarded older people as redundant. The labour market is geared to a high turnover of recruitment and retirement, and that cannot go on. Employers will have to deal with a completely different labour market, not the perpetually rejuvenating workforce we've been used to.”

And employers, awake to the reality that they might have been missing out on a whole lot of workers only too eager to be taken back into exploitation, are doing as Walker advised. Companies like B&Q, W.H. Smith and Sainsbury's are tapping into the skills of workers they might once have put onto the scrap heap.

Self Image
It did not seem to occur to the “experts” – the analysts, the forecasters, the demographic manipulator – that among those pensioners there might have been a feisty few who would regard the process of rejuvenation as more than just an opportunity to return to the exploitation treadmill. They might also have reasoned that if younger workers commit crimes in order to pay the mortgage or the bills or to help them take a holiday, why shouldn't the employment retreads try it as a way of supplementing their pension and giving vent to their anger and frustration at being treated with such cynical contempt?

“If you're old” said one pensioner who had hit on an ingenious way of defrauding banks, “People don't see you, the individual: they see you as a stereotype”. Had he forgotten his younger days, when he was stereotyped as someone fitting into the presumptions about being employed and scraping by on a wage while he learned to do the same thing, only worse, on a pension? Employment – selling your abilities to an employer – does things to a person's self-image. At least the prisoners in Kingston need not be plagued by such illusions; they have the gates and the walls and the keys to tell them where they are and why.