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In a room shared by seven prisoners, the folded futon and bedding for three of them sits neatly beside black cases in which they can store their personal belongings during the day in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

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The over 60s are the fastest-growing group of criminals in Japan, which incarcerates its pensioners at a rate far higher than any other country in the industrialised world.

In my last post, I featured Tim Gruber’s photographs of aging prisoners in the U.S. As chance would have it, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert contacted me about his 4 hour assignment in a Onomichi prison in Japan, designed specifically for the detention of the elderly. Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs are a good point of comparison with Gruber’s photographs of elderly U.S. prisoners.

Sutton-Hibbert’s photographs from Onomichi prison accompanied a thorough investigation of aging Japanese prisoners by Justin McCurry:

The number of Japanese aged 70 and over charged with crimes trebled between 2000 and 2006, from 9,478 to 28,892, according to the national police agency. In Japan, while the number of charges against juveniles increased by 2% from 2000-04, there was a 125% increase among over-70s.

The number of Japanese aged 60 and over grew by 17% between 2000 and 2006, the number of prisoners in the same age bracket soared by 87%.

Most are inside for crimes, that seemingly result from poverty. Again, McCurry:

Of the 46,637 people over 60 convicted in 2006, just over half were found guilty of shoplifting, followed by 23% who had committed petty theft.

Criminologists blame record levels of poverty among pensioners, the breakdown of the extended family, and a lack of professional help for those with depression and other mental illnesses. […] The best chance many [elderly former-prisoners] have of security, decent healthcare and three meals a day is another stint behind bars. […] According to a recent justice ministry study, almost two-thirds of Onomichi’s older inmates will walk back through its doors within five years of their release.

That’s a recidivism rate as bad as that in the U.S. the world’s most renowned broken prison system. We must bear in mind that the U.S. prison system, by population, is roughly 28 times the size of the Japanese (and UK) prison systems. McCurry:

At 80,000, the prison population of Japan is approximate to that of the UK. However, 12% of Japanese prisoners are at least 60, whereas 2.8% of prisoners in the UK are 60 and over.

Regardless of geography, aging prison populations bring about the same challenges, health problems and associated expense. In Japan, about 1,000 prisoners have difficulty walking, feeding themselves or doing prison work. That is surely a figure dwarfed in the states, which has 124,900 prisoners aged 55 or older.


Prisons are designed for punishment. The punishment is the deprivation of liberty. Prisons are also designed for a minority of prisoners to ensure public safety and remove violent people off the streets. When it comes to aged people, the first legal constant must remain, but in the case of the second – and when a prisoner is clearly old and infirm – is a prison always the right place for society to mete out it’s judgement? In the case of the UK, Edmund Clark’s photographs and Erwin James’ commentary might help us come to some conclusions.

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Ramps for elderly inmates to walk up, leading to the bathroom, instead of using stairs, in Onomichi prison , Japan. May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoners (in white) preparing lunches for their fellow inmates, presided over by a prison guard, in Onomichi prison, Japan. Monday, May 19th, 2008.

Many of the elderly prisoners suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes, with 70-80% of them receiving medication.

Following a roll call of names, elderly prisoners (and one pushing a stroller chair for stability) make their way to a room for their lunch,  in Onomichi prison, Japan.

Elderly prisoners playing Japanese board game ‘shogi’,  during recreational time in an indoor recreational room, whilst two fellow inmates use the exercise bikes, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

Elderly prisoner exercising on a rowing machine in an indoor recreational room, watched over by guards, in Onomichi prison, Japan.  Monday, May 19th 2008.

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All images: Jeremy Sutton Hibbert

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Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert‘s work has appeared in magazines such as Time, National Geographic, Italian Geo, Le Figaro, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and many others. For the past decade, Sutton-Hibbert has been one of the principle photographers for Greenpeace International. His work has taken him to over 40 countries, as far flung as Antarctica and Outer Mongolia. Sutton-Hibbert’s photography has been widely published and exhibited in Europe and USA. For 9 years, Sutton-Hibbert was based in Tokyo, Japan and recently returned to his native Scotland to live and work.

In 2008, Tim Gruber embedded at the Kentucky State Reformatory to photograph in the geriatric wing designated for elderly and terminally ill patients. The result is Served Out, a photography and multimedia project. Here, I featured six images included in the PPOTR/Cruel and Unusual exhibition, but you should check out Tim and Jenn’s website for more stellar images.

Both Tim and his wife Jenn Ackerman worked in KSR the same summer. Tim is unequivocal: their access was down to then-Warden Larry Chandler’s good grace and good sense. Chandler wanted people to see how their tax dollars were spent and understood photography as part of the transparency he insisted on for the institution. KSR even gave weekly tours of its facilities.

Tim and Jenn, after brief training, were given staff-badges and were free to go about their work in the prison. They moved down to La Grange, KY for the summer to make the project and it wasn’t easy; Tim blogged some of the challenges (one, two, three, four, five.)

When we spoke last October, Gruber was in discussion with the ACLU. Last month, his images were used to illustrate the ACLU’s latest report ‘At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly‘ (Tim’s announcement.)

Of course, the common knowledge of the problems of incarcerating the elderly shaped our discussion. From the ACLU report:

Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674%, substantially outpacing the growth of other government spending, and becoming the fourth-largest category of state spending. […] It costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner, but it costs $68,270 per year to house a prisoner age 50 and older. to put that number into context, the average American household makes about $40,000 a year in income.

In 1981, there were 8,853 state and federal prisoners age 55 and older. today, that number stands at 124,900, and experts project that by 2030 this number will be over 400,000, amounting to over one-third of prisoners in the United states. in other words, the elderly prison population is expected to increase by 4,400% over this fifty-year time span. this astronomical projection does not even include prisoners ages 50-54, for which data over time is harder to access.

The U.S. keeps elderly men and women locked up despite an abundance of evidence demonstrating that recidivism drops dramatically with age. For example, in new York, only 7% of prisoners released from prison at ages 50-64 returned to prison for new convictions within three years. that number drops to 4% for prisoners age 65 and older.

But, also, Tim and I talked about the emotions and first-hand experiences statistics don’t capture – the need for alternative imagery of prisoners and their humanity; what it was like to work on the wings, sit with the men and witness death (“Tears would overwhelm me”); compassionate release, prisoner-volunteer medical assistants and how Tim’s imagery may effect change.


The Fault Lines programme on English Al-Jazeera looks at America’s aging prison population. Reporter Josh Rushing gets exclusive access across the US, but the most astounding footage is from the Geriatric Unit of the Joseph Harp Correction Center, Lexington, Oklahoma.

Fault Lines also visits the Mabel Bassett Correction Center, Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison.


* At the time of filming, Oklahoma’s prison system was operating at 75% staffing, referred to by administration as “warehouse mode”; housing but not rehabilitating prisoners.

* Check out Sherman Parker’s situation beginning at 9.38. Sherman is 100 years old. He is cared for by Seth Anderson, another inmate convicted for kidnap and drug and weapon possession. Anderson speaks frankly about the hospice care at the Dick Conner Correctional Center, Oklahoma.

* Prisoners over 55 years account for the fastest growing class of inmates in America.

* Only three out of every 100 inmates over 55 years return to prison after release, compared to the national average of over 60%.

* Fishkill Correctional Facility, 70 miles north of New York is the nations first purpose-built unit for the cognitively impaired. The average age is 63 and many prisoners suffer from Alzheimer’s and other conditions of dementia.


Coverage of aging prison populations will receive more column inches, online commentary, pixels and pingbacks in the coming years. Just as social security needs overhaul in the US and the pension age is to be raised in the UK, so too new means of fiscal policy are needed to cater for the elderly behind bars … on both sides of the pond.

Edmund Clark’s Still Life: Killing Time is a quiet meditation on the slowness, the fabric and the accoutrements of prison life for elderly inmates. It was two years in the making. This was a hard project to track down. It seems all of Edmund Clark’s promotion is done by others; by publishers, journos, gallerists and supporters. Clark has no website. Clark is as inconspicuous as his subjects.

Clark doesn’t do the commentary for the Guardian‘s Audio Slideshow (MUST SEE). In his absence, Erwin James does a great job of whispering the tragic, hard realities of the prison environment. I include and italicise Erwin’s comments below Clark’s photographs.


“It saddens me when I see these pictures, these tokens of disablement, the accoutrements of disability; a chair lift, a walking stick, a walking frame. I think that is when I struggle with the idea that these people should be in prison. If someone is demonstrably infirm, demonstrably not functioning well through age or ill health, a prison environment (which this clearly is) is not the appropriate environment.”

It’s worth noting some background to the series. Elderly prison populations only recently became serious noticeable enough for HM Prison Service to trial different modes of containment. The E-Wing of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth was the first experiment. In 2007, upon publication of the book, Erwin James explained;

The answer was Kingston’s E wing. For eight years, this was home to up to 25 elderly men serving life for murder, rape, child sex offences and other offences of violence. The men were aged from their late 50s to over 80. Many had been in prison for more than 10 years, and several for stretches of 30 years or more. E wing as a special facility for elderly prisoners no longer exists. The only other wing dedicated to infirm and disabled prisoners now is in Norwich prison, Norfolk.



“I think cell bars are a tough one. They offer a difficult vista. When you look through cell bars you are aware that the outside doesn’t belong to you. You’re disengaged. And when you see cell bars with a bit of colour like that – the flower and the card – it’s a bit incongruous. These old guys are still humans.”

But for James, as for myself, and particularly for Clark, this is not about sympathy or compassion for the convicted criminal. It has already been stated that these men are serious criminals. There surely must come a point though when an old man is not the physical threat he once was. Simon Norfolk – a photographer I personally consider one of Britain’s best – wrote for the foreword;

” … why are there bars on the window of a man who can’t walk without a frame. What kind of escape plan can be hatched by a man who can’t remember how to go to the toilet.”


“This picture for me epitomizes the absurdity, and moments of madness the prison system can have. We are keeping someone in prison, who has dementia. They have basic instruction about how to go to the toilet. If there were ever a case for somebody who needs not to be in prison, it would be for that person.”

The only statement I can find directly from Clark, the photographer, is worth meditation.

What you can see in the pictures is to what extent they are engaged with their routine, and on top of their regime and what sort of engagement they have with time. One man, who wore a long grey beard, coped with the passage of time, as far as I could see, by disengaging with it completely. He spent most of his time sitting in his chair … He just sat and disappeared within himself. After about a year I could go and talk to him, and this man was clever, he’d been a captain in the merchant navy and had sailed around the world. I asked him once what was the best place he’d been to and he lifted his head and said, ‘Sao Paulo, I loved Brazil …’ And then suddenly this life came out, his life was all there, hidden away. The bulldog clock on the book cover belonged to him, it was one of his prized possessions.


Apparently, Clark created this body of work spurred by reports from the USA about mandatory sentencing under “Three Strikes Laws” and the consequent swelling of America’s prison population. Clark engaged with Britain’s aging prison population in direct response to demographic disasters in American penal policy. Clark elaborates;

People subjected to it [Three Strikes Law] were swelling the ranks of the prison population, with the result that many men sentenced when young would spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. I wondered what the response in the UK was to those incarcerated for many years – the life prisoners, or ‘lifers’, who face an old age and growing infirmity in an institutional environment still ruled by the survival of the fittest.

Clark made his point by seeking out the UK’s first specialised prison facility for aged prisoners and then produced a body of work that is distinctly British. Photographs of Bond posters, a (British?) Bulldog, Red-top clippings of Diana & the Queen, and framed artwork of common birds to British gardens & allotments; these are not obvious clues to a global appreciation of prison culture. I conclude, Clark thinks globally, acts locally.


“If you are young and strong prison is manageable on the whole. If you feel weak or infirm or poorly it is a harder place to be and these photographs epitomize the frailty factor, the danger of getting old in prison or being old in prison … My feeling about prison is that it is not a place for old people. Prison is one environment for everybody regardless of your circumstances and so what happens is your survival depends on luck and natural resources. And if you’re old you’re not gonna have as much luck as the younger guys.”


“There’s a lot of people in the system who know that prison is not a place for old, infirm, disabled people. And its not. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be separated from society, but I am talking about prison as we know it. The common interpretation of prison is landings, wings, cells, prison officers, dogs, security; that whole encapsulation of captivity. If you are infirm there needs to be another place. We are giving extra punishment to the weak people.”



“There is an argument for separating the old folks from the main prison wing and that is what happened here. It was an experiment. E-Wing. The danger for me is that is becomes a place … you know, they talked of the fetid atmosphere; smelly and hot. The smell of old people. As a society we don’t have a lot of respect for old people.”

Clark’s unambiguous images of mobile aids and instructions for the senile are a clear call for change. His studies of prized-possessions and personal ordering of objects play on emotional responses to depicted vulnerabilities; Clark’s works conspire as a whole (43 images in total) to shape a convincing argument that we should all care about how our prison system accommodates different demographics. The elderly demographic is only growing, only advancing … with time.

As James’ words have served me so well throughout this article I shall close with his take on public opinion.

“I am pleased society is taking this on, because prison is a robust and hostile environment, and in fact the authorities refer to all prisons as hostile environments. That’s how they’re officially termed. That’s not because everyone who goes there are dangerous, but I think prison brings out the worst in a lot of people. It can bring out the best, but often it brings out the worst. And that’s not to say they are bad characters, it’s because people in prison are defensive and they are defensive because they are frightened.”



All images copyright of Edmund Clark.

Still Life: Killing Time, by Edmund Clark, is published by Dewi Lewis, and avaiable at PhotoEye


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