Brett Wortman

What to do with aging prison population?

NEW South Wales may be forced to build dedicated jail blocks for prisoners with dementia as the state grapples with an aging criminal population.

Parliamentary researchers were tasked with looking at options to overcome the increased costs, health issues and post-jail resettlement problems older prisoners pose.

The proportion of NSW prisoners aged 45 years or older tripled from 7.2% in 1982 to 21.1% last year.

Across Australia there were 527 prisoners aged 65 or older in 2010 - more than double the 231-strong population in 2001.

The Australian Institute of Criminology attributed the increase not just to better life expectancy, but to changes to prosecution and sentencing laws including mandatory minimum sentencing and reduced options for early release.

It also estimated older prisoners cost three times more to keep in jail than their younger counterparts - second only to HIV or AIDS-positive inmates in the expense stakes.

In its 2014 discussion paper Dementia in Prison, Alzheimer's Australia NSW commented a growing number of people with dementia in jails posed challenges for both inmates and authorities.

"As the symptoms of dementia increase, a person with dementia in prison will have difficulty following rules, socialising appropriately and performing activities of daily living for themselves such as eating, dressing and bathing," it stated.

"If the person with dementia has not been diagnosed they can run the risk of reprimand or punishment due to lack of understanding of their behaviours which in turn can compromise their physical and mental wellbeing."

But options are at hand.

The researchers recommended the NSW Government investigate whether age-segregated units (basically prison nursing homes) should be introduced.

The United States and Germany both have specialised jails designed to accommodate elderly prisoners with chronic health problems or terminal illnesses.

In Louisiana, a program places law students with aged inmates who meet the selection criteria.

The students then speak to the prisoners' victims before deciding whether to advocate for an early release from the parole board.

By 2001, the program had helped almost 300 inmates gain release without any of them reoffending.

The California Men's Colony has its own specialised facilities for housing inmates with dementia and other severe mental impairments.

"As Australia's life expectancy rates continue to increase into the future policymakers will need to address the many challenges that come with an older population," the report stated.

"These challenges will be even more pronounced in the prison environment.

"Although they represent a comparatively small proportion of the NSW prison population, the continuing growth in the number of older prisoners, many already experiencing a range of co-morbidities, will impact existing government services."


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