Aging inmates: Correctional Service of Canada has strategy in the works

Canada’s prison population is getting greyer, and the Correctional Service of Canada expects to soon complete a strategy for how to deal with aging inmates.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator — the ombudsman for federal prisoners — has been pressing the service to do that for several years.

Inmates 50 and older are considered to be in the aging category. That cutoff point might seem young to someone on the outside, but health is generally poorer behind bars, said Ivan Zinger, who has been the correctional investigator for just under a year.

“You can basically add a factor of 10 years on chronological age,” he said.

That means more heart problems, diabetes and other ailments in facilities designed with much younger occupants in mind. Stairs can be tough to navigate and there are often long distances between buildings.

One in four inmates in Canada is over 50, but in some prisons that age group makes up more than half the population, said Zinger.

Zinger’s predecessor had been calling for a strategy since at least 2010, when 18 per cent of federal inmates were over 50.

“It’s definitely the most expensive age cohort to incarcerate,” said Zinger. “And at the same time it’s probably the one that has the least amount in terms of risk.”

The correctional service said in a statement that it plans to complete its strategy in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

It already has a way to assess older offenders so they can get care for chronic diseases related to aging. It has also provided step stools to make it easier to get in and out of escort vehicles, improved wheelchair accessibility and enabled cells to accommodate oxygen bottles and equipment.

The demographic trend means more natural deaths behind bars.

“It’s not just dementia that increases in prevalence with age, but also cancer and other serious chronic illnesses,” said Jennifer Chandler, a University of Ottawa law professor.

“There are questions around how well we are able to provide a whole range of health care within the correctional setting, especially if you think about the need for palliative care.”

The correctional service says it can provide end of life care in prisons or in regional hospitals. Inmates with life-threatening, non-curable illnesses can also apply for early compassionate release.

Laura Tamblyn Watts, staff lawyer and senior fellow at the Canadian Centre for Elder Law, said she would like to see alternatives to typical penitentiaries for seniors serving time.

“They’re not nursing homes,” she said. “We keep people in jails that are not meant for older people.”

Tamblyn Watts said she’s not suggesting that older offenders get off lightly, but they shouldn’t be punished with what amounts to harsher conditions because they’re old and in poor health.

That could mean diverting some offenders to appropriate facilities within the community. But that requires caution, added Tamblyn Watts, who said there have been violent cases after an offender was “dumped” in a long-term care home not equipped for such residents.

Mandatory minimum sentences brought in as part of the previous Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda means more people will get old in prison, said Denis Bracken with the University of Manitoba’s social work faculty.

The Liberals have said they intend to roll back some of those requirements.

“What that means is regardless of the age and social circumstances of the offender … you have a situation in which a judge’s hands are tied as to what kind of sentence they can impose,” said Bracken.

Zinger said he would like the aging offender strategy to include alternatives to incarceration.

“There’s got to be a better way to manage this segment of the inmate population.”

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