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The number of federal prisoners over the age of 50 has increased rapidly in the last decade, now reaching more than 25%. The increase is in large part a consequence of various tough on crime laws passed at the beginning of this decade. This shift in the prison demographic has brought about numerous challenges for the federal correctional system. In her new book Punished for Aging: Vulnerability, Rights, and Access to Justice, Dr Adelina Iftene describes the serious problems the system has in responding to older prisoners.
Older prisoners are a group with a very low risk of reoffending yet face a higher burden of disease (including chronic, acute, mental, and terminal illnesses), have higher rates of morbidity and mortality, experience their sentences more intensely than their younger counterparts, face extra challenges in obtaining parole, are at a higher risk of victimization.
Older prisoners have a tougher time
Based on interviews with some 200 older federal prisoners at various security levels, Iftene describes the many challenges they face in Canadian penitentiaries, and their struggles for justice.. She explores the shortcomings of institutional processes, prison-monitoring mechanisms, and legal remedies available in courts and tribunals, which leave prisoners vulnerable to rights abuses and treat them as people without rights.
For example, nearly half of the prisoners she interviewed faced significant physical disabilities yet prisons were very badly adapted for such basic needs as being able to climb into an upper bunk, or being able to get to various parts of the prison for medical, work, recreation, education or other purposes. Those with disabilities were also more likely than others to spend time in segregation, a situation recognized by Canadian courts as inhumane.
Prisoners who were not mobile had to rely on other prisoners to help them with daily tasks, and reported being subject to neglect, bullying, and theft.
Poor health services
Medical and other health services, which are heavily used by older prisoners, were often poor. A prisoner could wait days even to see a nurse for a severe illness or pain. It could take weeks to see a doctor, many months to see a specialist if such a request was even granted. Prisoners did not have access to adequate pain relief, or to other drugs that had worked for them prior to being imprisoned. Prisoners needing surgery were often shackled during and after this procedure and returned to prison too quickly even though the prisons did not have the capacity to care for them.
And when it came to prisoners dying, which is a regular occurrence especially for those with life sentences, the system had no capacity for palliative care, does not allow medically-assisted death, would not modify policies to support family visits, and would not grant compassionate leave even to dying prisoners so they could die with their loved ones instead of in a cell.
Parole is another problematic area. Despite their low risk of offending, older prisoners were often denied parole, with many having served 30 or more years in jail, and being many years past their eligibility for parole, yet still unable to gain release.
The problems addressed in this book are not new but growing numbers of older prisoners add urgency to reform. Iftene proposes specific changes that would improve the situation of older prisoners without increasing public risk, and would also reinforce the status of incarcerated individuals as holders of substantive rights.
Written in an accessible language, and featuring the words and stories of prisoners, this book is valuable for anyone working in the field of criminal justice but also for anyone interested in social justice, and in understanding the way prison issues expand beyond prison walls and impact all of us.
Adelina Iftene is an assistant professor at Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS. Her work can be found here: https://works.bepress.com/adelina-iftene/.
“Punished for Aging” can be purchasesdfrom the publisher: https://utorontopress.com/ca/punished-for-aging-3 or on amzon.ca: https://www.amazon.ca/Punished-Aging-Vulnerability-Canadian-Penitentiaries/dp/1487524285