Social care in prisons: a needs assessment and service requirements

David Challis Completed   2017


In light of the growing prison population, the rising number of older prisoners and longer prison sentences, the level of social care needs in prisons is increasing. Nevertheless, a series of reports in recent years have found the quality of social care in prisons to be, at best, variable and at worst, nonexistent. This situation has been in part attributed to considerable confusion about whether or which local authorities were responsible for prisoners’ social care needs. One 2004 report found local authority social service departments were extremely reluctant to carry out assessments, let alone offer support, while as recently as 2014, local authority social work staff were involved in assessing/ meeting prisoners’ needs in just a quarter of establishments.

The introduction of the Care Act 2014 was widely welcomed. However, service planning was difficult, for the number of prisoners eligible for support was unclear, and little was known about the extent of their needs or how best to meet them.


This study sought to provide information that could assist local authorities’ develop services for prisoners with social care needs. It explored the nature and extent of prisoners’ social care needs, scoped the potential services required to meet these, and identified the early care arrangements that had been put in place to deliver the reforms.


There were three strands to the project:

  1. Face-to-face interviews were undertaken with 482 male prisoners in a mix of Category B, C and D local, training and resettlement prisons in Lancashire (approximately 12 per cent of the local prison population). Just under a fifth of participants were aged 50 or over. The sample’s index offence profile closely mirrored the national picture, and about two-thirds had had a previous prison stay.
  2. Frontline staff from nine LAs attended workshops at which they were asked to identify which of a series of prisoners with different needs met the national eligibility criteria for the provision of social care and support.
  3. 59% of LAs (including 81% of LAs containing prisons) completed a national survey of the early arrangements they had put in place to identify and deliver care for prisoners with social care needs.


  • Approximately a sixth of prisoners reported some need for help with activities of daily living.
  • There appeared to be considerable variation in the way that national eligibility criteria for the provision of social care and support were being interpreted.
  • There is a need for greater active case finding of existing prisoners with social care needs.
  • Many prisoners’ social care needs were being met by the prison regime and/or other prisoners.
  • The number of specialist social care staff (primarily social workers) working in prisons was small, but a high calibre workforce is developing.


Journal papers

Tucker S, Hargreaves C, Roberts A, Anderson I, Shaw J, Challis D (2018) Social care in prison: Emerging practice arrangements consequent upon the introduction of the 2014 Care Act, British Journal of Social Work, 48, 6, 1627–1644.

Tucker S, Hargreaves C, Cattermull M, Roberts A, Walker T, Shaw J, Challis D (2019) The nature and extent of prisoners’ social care needs: Do older prisoners require a different service response? Journal of Social Work, published online.

Social care in prisons: A needs assessment and service requirements
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