The aging of Canada’s prison population and the many issues it raises is seriously neglected. As of March 2013, there were 15,224 prisoners in 57 federal penitentiaries serving sentences of more than two years. The proportion of that population over the age of 50 continues to increase rapidly – over 50 per cent in the last decade – and now represents nearly 20 per cent of the total federal prison population. This increase in the age of Canada’s prisoners is creating a number of practical, ethical, and moral challenges that need to be addressed. Canada’s Correctional Investigator and Ombudsman for Canada’s prisoners, Howard Sapers, discussed a number of these issues in a presentation at the 2011 SFU Ting Forum on Justice Policy: “Population Aging and the Challenges for Corrections” that deserves to be better known outside of the academic community.
One of the important points raised by Mr. Sapers is that Canada’s aging prison population is not simply a demographic issue. Offenders are growing older and more infirm behind bars for a number of reasons which include: 1) significant shifts in sentencing reforms that now see more prisoners serving longer sentences and receiving significantly fewer opportunities for parole as a result of mandatory minimum penalties and, 2) elimination or tightening of parole eligibility criteria and expansion of indeterminate sentencing designations. Mr. Sapers also indicated that long prison terms accelerate normal physiological aging – by 10 years on average – due to limited access to medical care and extended unhealthy lifestyles both before and during the prison sentence. The end result is that the mental and physical health distress experienced by Canada’s oldest prisoners is significant. Some of the health statistics related to older prisoners include:
Mr. Sapers also included a special focus on the growing number of offenders aged 50 years and older behind bars in his 2011-2012 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Mr. Sapers has since commented that he is disappointed in the response of Correctional Services Canada (CSC) to his report, noting that “CSC currently has no plans to move forward with developing a comprehensive, integrated national older offender strategy.” According to Mr. Sapers, “the health and safety concerns of aging inmates detailed in the report, including victimization, mobility and assistive living needs, learning, correctional and vocational programming and palliative care, do not appear to be a priority.”
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Written By Ms. Margaret Easton
President of the Meridian Aging Project
January 30, 2015