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Unequal Ageing: Older Prisoners Ageing in Place

In managing the growing wave of older offenders, it would be wise to avoid some of the mistakes we have already made along the way in regards to the mentally ill. Just as prisons today have become the new asylums, we do not want the prisons of tomorrow to become the new geriatric facilities.” – Mr. Howard Sapers, former Correctional Investigator of Canada.

In early 2015, the IFA featured Ms. Margaret Easton as a guest blogger who discussed Canada’s ageing prison population and highlighted the need to prioritize the health and well-being of these older prisoners. Despite the pronounced need to tailor services to address this growing ageing population, little has been done worldwide to alleviate the inequalities older people in prison experience.

Globally, two billion people will be 60 years or older by 2050, making up over 20% of the world’s population. Prison populations around the world are no exception to this general population trend. A greater number people are being sentenced later in life due to advances in technology, an increase in mandatory minimum sentences and reduced access to parole and compassionate release combined with a general increase in life expectancy, have all contributed to the rapid ageing of prison populations globally.

As a consequence, correctional services are struggling to meet the basic needs of older prisoners which in turn, accelerates their ageing processes. There are a number of specific issues and emerging trends that require the urgent attention of policymakers.

  • Prison facilities  Most prisons are built to accommodate able-bodied young people and do not include age-friendly provisions like wide hallways for wheelchairs and walkers, hand rails or other devices used to encourage independence. This makes it extremely difficult for older people who have reduced mobility due to disabilities and / or chronic illnesses to move and live in prison environments.
  • Social care and life outside prison – Rehabilitative programming within prisons is geared to young prisoners who will be returning to the workforce upon their release. Reduced mobility and health issues limit the activities that older prisoners can participate in, further isolating them from the general population. These activities also reduce the success of older prisoners upon their release as they are often isolated and unaware of how to navigate social services outside of prison.
  • Health care – The health care needs of older prisoners are often left unmet. Minimal access to specialists and difficulties transferring health records between facilities results in many older prisoners struggling to manage their chronic and / or pre-existing health conditions, let alone diagnose new illnesses. Issues around diagnosis also extend to mental illnesses and disorders with few staff trained on recognizing signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • End of life care – Older people in prison are rarely able to die comfortably and peacefully. Limited access to pain relief and individuals in their support systems results in older prisoners often dying alone and in pain. Little support is available for grieving prisoners who are mourning the loss of their friend while simultaneously worried that they will die the same way.
  • Delegation of responsibility – There is little clarity in governments and prisons around the world about who is actually responsible for providing additional care needs as most prisons are already understaffed and under-resourced. Further issues arise when prison guards who take on the burden of responsibility are not properly trained on the care needs of older people.

Older prisoners are in the unique position within society where their autonomy in accessing health and social care is restricted. In an era where the World Health Organization together with 194 member states are working to promote healthy ageing, it is necessary and timely to respond to the specific individual and environmental needs of older prisoners.

This blog post is part of an ongoing series of blogs on addressing inequalities amongst older people. To read the other blogs in the series, please click here.

Addressing Inequalities is one of the four themes of the 14th Global Conference on Ageing, which will be taking place in Toronto from 8-10 August 2018.

To learn more about the theme of Addressing Inequalities, and the 14th Global Conference on Ageing, click here.

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