A more humane prison

Imagine the horror of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia, breaking the law and bring sentenced to a prison term.

Imagine the horror of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia, breaking the law and bring sentenced to a prison term.

The justice system expects them to be rehabilitated in a “general population” of offenders. They live in a own personal prison of confusion, and are frequently victimized by fellow prisoners taking advantage of their confused state of mind.

They are being punished, not rehabilitated, many times over.

Sadly, prison systems in Canada and the United States lack facilities and an understanding to deal with such offenders. And it’s only going to get worse, warns Dr. Duncan Scott, a psychiatrist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Canada’s prison population is getting older and programs must be in place to cope with the inevitable — the same aging process as the rest of society, says Scott.

“This is something that we’ll need to undertake. . . . The dementia and the sickness that goes along with aging is going to be profound and it will reflect itself in the prison system, and probably (the problem will) be a lot more severe.”

Last September, a Winnipeg family lived a personal hell when their father, in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, was jailed in a remand centre on a charge of assaulting their mother.

He spent 30 days in jail — in total confusion and terror — awaiting the outcome of the case. The family was incensed.

The mother pleaded that charges not be laid, and it wasn’t until a public outcry opened ears that the father was relocated to a facility that could afford him dignity and understanding.

“Alzheimer’s respects no boundaries,” Canadian Press reporter Sheryl Ubelacker recently wrote. “It doesn’t care if someone is rich or poor, a man or a woman — or behind bars of a cell. Just as society as a whole is greying, so too are those incarcerated in prison.”

“And for inmates with Alzheimer’s, or another form of dementia,” she continued, “living with the disease can be even more difficult and fraught with danger than those on the outside.”

Ubelacker was reporting from Toronto on the International Conference of Alzheimer’s Disease last week that addressed the inadequacies of North American prison systems to accommodate those suffering from dementia.

But a positive note emerged at the conference — an innovative program started in a California prison in 2009 cares for inmates with dementia.

It could prove to be a model for other prisons in Canada and the U.S. The program at the medium-security’s California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo involves six volunteers, prisoners with good records of behaviour, who act as buddies to fellow prisoners with dementia.

They are trained as caregivers through a local chapter of the U.S. Alzheimer’s Association.

Prisoners with dementia are officially called inmate patients, but the caregivers call them “our guys, which I thought was kind of sweet,” Sara Bartlett, a clinical social worker involved in the program, told the conference.

“They were very compassionate, protective, with the inmate patients.” The volunteer aides expressed frustration with the current prison system, which they found insufficient for their pals. “. . . Most of their challenges weren’t related to directly caring for their guys,” she said.

The frustrations were caused by a lack of flexibility in institutional rules that failed to accommodate needs for inmates with mental or physical health issues.

Prisoners suffering dementia and placed in general population are targeted. Other inmates try “to get their things, or get them to give them things, try to provoke them just for fun so they would engage in behaviour where they would be the ones who would get in trouble,” said Bartlett.

Some prisoners suffering dementia may be beyond rehabilitation. But we must understand that some have no control of their actions. They act the way they do, overpowered by an illness that is still poorly understood by legal authorities — and society in general.

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.