BACKGROUNDER
38th Annual Report to Parliament

Summary of Issues and Challenges Facing
Older and Aging Offenders in Federal Custody


Overview

  • In Canada, and many other jurisdictions, the 50-year old benchmark is used to refer to aging or older offenders. The literature suggests that the natural aging process is accelerated by as much as ten years or more in an institutional (custodial) setting.
  • Close to one-in-five federally incarcerated offenders is aged 50 or over; 30% of federal offenders in the community are aged 50 and over. This segment of the offender population has increased by 50% over the past decade. At Bath Institution, for example, which is a medium security facility in the Ontario region, 35% of the total offender population is aged 50 or older.
  • The increasing proportion of older offenders behind bars reflects the changing demographics of an aging Canadian society. The median age of the offender population upon admission to federal custody is 33 years, which is increasing slightly each year.
  • An increasing number of offenders are entering federal penitentiaries later in life. In 2009-10, 20.3% of admissions to federal custody were offenders between the ages of 40-49 (up from 16.3% at the start of the decade).
  • In addition, the cumulative impact of policy, sentencing and legislative reforms (e.g. introduction of mandatory minimum penalties, elimination or tightening of parole eligibility criteria, expansion of indeterminate sentencing designations) means that a greater percentage of offenders are serving an increasing proportion of their sentence in custody rather than some form of community supervision.1
  • Today, 62% of the total federal offender population is incarcerated, while 38% is supervised in the community. The ratio between incarcerated and community supervised offenders is widening. The majority of federal offenders are now being released at statute (two-thirds point of the sentence) having never benefited from an early discretionary release of any kind (e.g. day or full parole, work release, temporary absence).
  • Other systemic barriers to community reintegration - e.g. limited access to programming, more complex offender profile, delays in preparing cases for parole review, decreasing parole grant rates - suggest that the proportion of aging and older offenders will continue to increase and accumulate inside federal penitentiaries.

Issues of Concern

Access to Programming

  • There needs to be increased attention given to the relevance, accessibility and applicability of the current programming model for older offenders. Older offenders may require specific accommodations in order to participate in correctional programming.
  • Older and long-serving offenders are often not considered as high a priority for reintegrative and rehabilitative programming or vocational training as younger offenders. As a group, aging offenders have different needs. Older offenders rarely access existing counselling, educational or vocational prison programs.
  • The structure and content of the current programming model, focused on 'intensity’ levels, 'employability’ and practical job market skills may have little relevance or meaning in the life status of an older offender.

Health Care

  • Canadian prisons are increasingly home to greater numbers of the infirm, the impaired and the aging. Older offenders use a disproportionate share of prison health-care services. Some aging offenders find it difficult to maintain normal everyday institutional routines (eating, dressing, hygiene) as a result of progressive physical impairment.
  • Aging offenders have higher rates of both mild and serious health conditions. Treatment of chronic diseases and illnesses associated with aging - including cancer, emphysema, dementia, diabetes and cardiovascular disease - often requires access to expensive outside medical facilities. Many older offenders will require palliative care as a result of terminal illness.
  • Relieving suffering and providing end of life care in a prison setting is an expensive endeavour, and often presents both ethical and operational challenges. A long-serving older offender may have few community ties or family supports outside of the prison walls.

Conditions of Confinement

  • Prisons were built to accommodate a young inmate profile. The physical design and infrastructure of a typical federal penitentiary are often not appropriate to the needs of aging offenders. Accessing fresh air exercise, participating in yard or gym or engaging in other regular social routines and institutional activities can be challenging for the mobility or sight-impaired.
  • Retrofitting institutions with special assistive devices and equipment to meet everyday housing, ambulatory, toileting, bathing and feeding needs of an aging offender population is expensive. New construction should have these needs taken into account.
  • Older offenders can be the victims of intimidation, muscling and bullying by younger, stronger and more aggressive inmates, which may deprive them of their physical safety and security. Segregating older offenders from the rest of the population for personal safety or institutional security reasons creates its own dilemmas and can result in further isolation and marginalization of an already distressed population.

Post Release Supervision

  • Section 121 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act allows for 'parole by exception’ release of a federal offender who is terminally ill. Such releases are rare. Even the most deserving of cases can be discouraged from applying as the referral and review process is complicated and lengthy.
  • Under the Criminal Code, the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, exercised by the Governor General or federal Cabinet upon recommendation of the Minister of Public Safety, is an exceptional provision that allows for a life-sentenced offender with a terminal illness to be conditionally pardoned and released to the community. In 2008, the Parole Board received 21 Royal Prerogative requests; none were granted.
  • The Office continues to see cases where the respective legislative criteria would seem to be met, but the applications were not considered, supported or prepared as diligently as they could be by the Correctional Service.
  • The result is that a number of terminally ill offenders are dying in federal penitentiaries each year, sometimes in tragic or less than dignified conditions.

National Older Offender Strategy

  • The Correctional Service lacks a specific and dedicated national older offender strategy. An Older Offender Division was created at CSC National Headquarters in 2000 and a policy group was tasked with making recommendations in support of a national effort, but both initiatives have long since been abandoned. None of the recommendations ever saw the light of day.
  • A national strategy is required to provide much-needed direction and reform in managing a significant, but often overlooked sub-population. Such a strategy needs to take account of the unique individual and group needs of aging offenders and include plans and resources to meet current and anticipated capacity demands in the areas of physical health care, accommodation, program development and independent care and living.
  • Special consideration should be given to pre-release planning and enhanced community supports to facilitate timely and safe reintegration of older offenders who pose no risk to public safety.

Recommendations

  1. The Service develop a more appropriate range of programming and activities tailored to the older offender, including physical fitness and exercise regimes, as well as other interventions that are responsive to the unique mobility, learning, assistive and independent living needs of the elderly inmate.
  2. Where necessary, CSC hire more staff with training and experience in palliative care and gerontology. Sensitivity and awareness training regarding issues affecting older offenders should be added to the training and refresher curriculums of both new and experienced staff.
  3. Where new construction is planned, age-related physical and mental impairments should be part of the infrastructure design, and include plans and space for a sufficient number of accessible living arrangements.
  4. The Service prepare a national older offender strategy for 2011-12 that includes a geriatric release component as well as enhanced post-release supports.
  5. The Service’s practices and procedures for preparing terminally ill offenders for 'release by exception’ consideration be independently reviewed to ensure CSC standards are being met and that cases are being prepared with appropriate diligence, rigour and timeliness.

Footnote

1. Approximately 3,200 offenders are currently serving a life or indeterminate sentence in a federal penitentiary. Most will eventually be considered an 'older’ offender before they are even considered eligible to apply for parole. The average time served in prison for first-degree murder in Canada is 28.4 years, greater than most other advanced democracies.