The Problem with Being Old and Incarcerated

In the January issue of The New Statesman, Britain’s leading weekly magazine of politics, culture, and international affairs, Andrew Katzen examined elderly inmates in British prisons. His article, “Should we be sending the elderly to prison”, argues that British prisons are slowly turning into dysfunctional nursing homes. According to Katzen, Partner at Hickman & Rose, prison conditions for the elderly are tough and little, if any, rehabilitative purpose is served in holding them. His main point is that Britain’s aging population is causing an increase in the number of old people behind bars hence a new and improved prison reform has to be considered.

This topic is quite controversial because it focuses on criminals who have broken the law. Therefore we need to be mindful of how these offenses were committed and to whom, especially since both victim and perpetrator are human beings. The ethical component of this issue is complex because, while the range of offenses differ, the state of elderly care in prisons needs improvement. Before this article tackles the reasons, there are a few things that need to be clarified. This article is not whether the elderly deserve imprisonment or about the type of sentence older prisoners deserve. Everyone is entitled to their opinions due to strong views about this subject. As a health care professional, the goal is to improve the social and natural environments in order to better the health of marginalized populations.

The world’s population is aging. According to the National Institute on Aging, the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050. This trend may result in a shift in prison demographics as prisoners will grow older whether they are young or new. A prime example is 82-year-old Teresa de Jesus Tello who was incarcerated in a Peruvian prison for an alleged case of drug trafficking…and she isn’t the only elderly prisoner. In Peru, there are 2,500 inmates over the age of 60 in prisons. Most of the elderly women are imprisoned for drug trafficking. While prison reform is important, it is important to tackle these issues in a sensible and sensitive way, involving all facets of society such as the public and private sectors.

Katzen’s article also discusses the design of prison estates stating that current designs are only suitable for the young and able. Although the issue is important, he fails to take into account the extra costs needed to build prison estates that are suitable for older prisoners. In developed nations, this cost can result in a tax increase which is often debatable. Alternatively, developing nations can make a case for better living conditions as prisons can be characterized as hazardous and chaotic places for offenders.

Although this topic is complex, societies can start with meeting the most basic personal activities such as carrying their meals and washing themselves, especially if prisoners are unable to care for themselves. Addressing the existence of chronic illnesses in older prisoners is vital and designing new environments should be considered for easier access and mobility for older populations. Moreover, appropriate medical care needs to be a priority for older prisoners as this can improve quality of life. As societies start to tackle this issue, the goal should be to prevent prisons from turning into dysfunctional nursing homes.

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.


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