Concerns over care of rising number of elderly inmates

Fri, Jan 4, 2013, 00:00

Analaysis:A marked increase in older prisoners in recent years is creating challenges

The number of older prisoners being held in Irish jails has increased by 70 per cent in the past six years, as gardaí have solved more historical crimes and the judiciary has leaned towards longer sentencing.

The most significant increase has occurred over the past year, when the number of inmates aged 50 or over increased by almost 30 per cent, with some in jail now over 80.

The marked increase in prisoners in the older age bracket has occurred despite the number of committals to prison having remained static in the past year.

Those advocating for prisoners’ rights and improved prison conditions have warned the situation is set to get a lot worse in the short term.

They believe the Irish Prison Service needs to put in place clear policies to meet the often complex needs of older prisoners.

The inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has raised his concerns with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, saying the prison service must accept that the needs of elderly prisoners can differ greatly from those of the wider prison population and require a tailored approach.

Incontinence, dementia, blindness and mobility issues are all problems for older prisoners.

Figures obtained by The Irish Times reveal a prison system in which the number of older prisoners is growing faster than the total prison population and where that trend has significantly accelerated of late.

Snapshot data compiled by the Irish Prison Service shows there were 335 prisoners aged 50 or over in jail in the Republic on November 30th last out of a total prison population of 4,298.

The numbers in jail on that day were 16 per cent higher than the same day 12 months earlier, yet the number of inmates aged 50 or more had increased by a more significant 29 per cent.

Gradual increase

On November 30th, 2007, there were 199 prisoners aged 50 or older in the Republic. This increased gradually before surging last year to 335 last November.

Of those, 152 are in the 50-55 age group, 73 in the 55-60 age group, 44 are aged 60-65, 42 are aged 65-70, 13 are aged 70-75, nine are 75-80 and two are aged 80 or older.

Executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust Liam Herrick said other jurisdictions had seen the same phenomenon in recent years and he was not surprised at recent trends in the Republic.

He cited longer sentences, the prosecution of more historical cases – especially sex abuse cases – and the increased involvement of older people in serious crime such as drugs that may not have been a factor until recent years.

Herrick said that while the Irish Prison Service had recognised the existence of vulnerable groups in the prison population such as young prisoners, women and those who were mentally ill, the reform trust believed older inmates needed to be included in that. “Conditions in a place like Cork Prison are going to affect you much more if you are elderly than if you are a young man.”

He said some older prisoners had mobility problems to the point of being disabled or blind. “There are also issues around dying in jail or releasing people who might be terminally ill. I think the prison service probably acts with compassion but it’s ad hoc rather than having any clear policy.”


In a recent report on Arbour Hill prison in Dublin, which houses many older sex offenders, Judge Reilly said many prisoners could cope on a daily basis only with the aid of other inmates. “Their difficulties are exacerbated by overcrowding in the prison,” he said.

Many inmates were so old they were no longer well enough to engage in organised exercise and education and workshop-based activities. He had seen one blind prisoner trying to negotiate his way around an exercise yard with just his white stick for assistance.

Other older inmates were using Zimmer frames and some prisoners were incontinent or had dementia.

While the Irish Prison Service did not outline its policies on older prisoners, sources said many new wings in jails were much more suitable for older prisoners and that healthcare services for the elderly in prisons had improved significantly in recent years.

Older prisoners Release at discretion of minister for justice


The 80-year-old has spent 47 years in prison for the murder in 1964 of Cork farmer George Applebe (51). Ennis beat Mr Applebe to death with an iron bar in his bedroom during a robbery at the Applebe family home. Ennis has spent his latter years in Shelton Abbey open prison in Co Wicklow, where he has helped care for animals on the prison farm, which are then exported to the developing world by the charity Bóthar. He is serving a life sentence and so can be held until the minister for justice sanctions his release. Ennis, regarded as being completely institutionalised, has declined to apply for parole.


Along with fellow Englishman Geoffrey Evans, Shaw (70) was jailed in 1978 after abducting two women and raping and murdering them in Galway and Wicklow in 1975. They told gardaí they planned to abduct and kill a woman every week if they had not been caught. Evans died in May 2012. He fell into a coma and had to be guarded in his hospital bed by prison officers, at a cost of €900,000 a year, before he was electronically tagged. Shaw is perhaps too high profile and too notorious for a minister for justice to ever consent to his release.


The Co Roscommon serial sex offender, now aged 72, was jailed for 10 years in 2008 on 26 sample counts of indecently assaulting seven boys between January 1970 and December 1986. The abuse of the boys took place at Tuohy’s home in Castlerea when the victims were aged between 10 and 15. He promised them sweets and money and taught them how to drive, but warned them not to tell their “special secret”.

Tuohy’s conviction is typical of a growing number of cases in recent years where witnesses have given statements to gardaí decades after being abused because the climate for such victims is now seen as more understanding.