Aging and dying in detention

Around the world, the number of older prisoners is on the rise. Like many countries, Canada is experiencing a demographic shift with an aging prison population. While 5% of the overall federal custody population is 65 years of age and older, there has been a substantial increase in the number of older prisoners over the age of 50, from 21% in fiscal year 2012-13 to 25% in fiscal year 2017-18.


The Correctional Service Canada (CSC) had the honour of attending the 28th Session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice held in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the effects of aging and dying in detention.


The Governments of Canada and Japan joined representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Justice Section, in an event to shed light on the practical challenges of providing care and custody to an aging prison population. The panel included:

  • Mr. Henry de Souza, Director General, Clinical Services and Public Health of CSC
  • Mr. Teppei Harima, Deputy Director of the Prison Service Division of the Corrections Bureau of Japan
  • Ms. Mana Yamamoto, Professor, UN Asia and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders
  • Ms. Mary Angela Murphy, Detention Advisor with the ICRC
  • Mr. Philipp Meissner, Prison Reform Focal Point, Justice Section UNODC

Participants highlighted the need to develop tailored strategies to respond to the fact that prisons are designed for younger offenders. They also provided an overview of practical responses, initiatives and recommendations on how to respond to the special needs of aging offenders.


In addition, Canada provided an overview of CSC’s policy framework, Promoting Wellness and Independence - Older Persons in Custody (2018).


“CSC is currently undertaking a comprehensive needs assessment of its older population,” says de Souza. “Working in collaboration with the University of Waterloo, we are assessing over 1,000 prisoners in institutions, over the age of 50, using a screening tool that identifies functional, cognitive, and social care needs.”


More importantly, CSC is conducting personal interviews with each older inmate to capture their lived experience. Participants shared their personal stories about what it is like to grow older within a correctional environment and to better understand their needs:  


“My health now is a result of the lifestyle that I had in the past. Things are catching up to me”. (Age 65+)


“They look after me pretty good. They check up on me regularly re: my diabetes.” (Age 65+)


“...concerned that if I’m released when older and need seniors home I won’t have any place to go. This bit (time) I was given a life sentence. As older offenders it’s very, very challenging starting a life sentence.” (Age 65+)


“good idea (to have a seniors unit) as long as there are activities available and exercise programs. Wouldn’t be good if it were just a nursing home set up.” (Age 65+)


(I worry about)…”Not being mobile…not being able to care for myself. Guys get agitated quickly with old guys who aren’t with it as much. Worry about getting dementia as both my parents had it.” (Age 65+)


As a recognized leader in the international corrections community, participating in such events allows CSC to share experiences and contribute to the conversation on promoting wellness and independence among older persons in custody. 


The results of CSC’s comprehensive needs assessment will inform policies and programs that promote healthy aging and wellness in a number of areas, including accommodation and accessible infrastructure; health care, hospice care; rehabilitation and social reintegration services; as well as early release planning.

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