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The greying of Canada's prison population

Inmates pace a Toronto jail on Feb. 24, 2011.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Penitentiaries were never meant to be nursing homes or long-term-care facilities, but Canada's corrections ombudsman says more prisoners are moving about with walkers and wheelchairs as the population behind bars grows older.

A report released Tuesday by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator, looks at the problems faced by elderly convicts, saying the segment of the incarcerated population that is over the age of 50 increased by 50 per cent in the past decade.

Mr. Sapers says the country's federal prisons were not built to handle an expanding number of aging and infirm convicts who require increased care at the same time as they are being victimized by younger and healthier convicts. He is calling upon the Correctional Service of Canada to devise a comprehensive strategy to deal with the greying of the prison population.

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The reason for the rising age of inmates is not entirely clear. It may be related to the fact that society itself is aging, people are entering prison later in life than in the past, and the number of people serving life sentences has been growing for the 35 years since the death penalty was abolished. Twenty per cent of prisoners in federal penitentiaries are now lifers.

At the same time, prisons are becoming more crowded as a result of tougher sentencing and increasing limitations on the amount of time sentences can be served in the community. That leaves older prisoners prey to the effects of gangs, drugs and violence in correctional institutions, said the ombudsman.

"Most of our prisons are already operating at or above capacity," Mr. Sapers said. "As prisons become more crowded, there are significant concerns associated with mixing a vulnerable older inmate with younger, more aggressive individuals."

Mr. Sapers said older prisoners have told him they live in fear for their physical safety. Some have reported being bullied into using the top bunk in their cells and having their meals and pharmaceutical drugs taken away by younger convicts.

Corrections staff will have to be trained to manage older inmates, he said, additional staff will have to be hired with experience in palliative care, new prisons should take into account the physical needs of the elderly, and activities need to be better suited to older offenders.

In addition, Mr. Sapers said, more needs to be done around the release of older prisoners into the community.

"Not only are these offenders returning to a community that they may no longer recognize," he said, "they may also not have the services and supports they need to successfully and safely support their return to society."

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Prison report findings

Some of the findings in the new report of the federal Corrections Investigator:

- Nearly one in five federal inmates is 50 or over, a population that has increased by 50 per cent over the past decade.

- The increasing proportion of older offenders behind bars reflects the changing demographics of an aging Canadian society.

- An increasing number of offenders are entering federal penitentiaries later in life. Last year, 20.3 per cent of those starting federal sentences were between the ages of 40 and 49, up from 16.3 per cent at the beginning of the decade.

- Mandatory minimum penalties, the tightening of parole eligibility, and the increase in open-ended sentences means more offenders are serving more time in custody rather than in some form of community supervision.

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- The ratio between incarcerated and community supervised offenders is widening. The majority of federal offenders are now being released after serving two-thirds of their sentence, having never benefited from an early discretionary release of any kind.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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