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Caring for older Australians, even when they’ve committed a crime

 

‘Brian’ was well known to all at one of Victoria’s maximum security prisons.  In his 80’s, he seemed usually to be in good spirits, with a warm welcome for regular visits.  As his mobility and other physical capabilities diminished, and as it became harder to negotiate the demands of prison life while using a walking frame,  ‘Brian’ spent many months in prison health facilities before he passed away in 2015.

Caring for older Australians is a core value in our society.

It is fundamentally about love of neighbour.  Because someone grows older, or because they are old when we meet them, doesn’t diminish their dignity

There are complex political and economic issues at play – what is the appropriate level for the aged pension?  How many aged care residential places should be funded?  But there is a near-universal acceptance throughout the community and the political system that older Australians deserve support and care.

At the personal level, our commitment tends to be even stronger.  Many families devote countless hours to care for older family members, and are very concerned that loved ones, if they do go into residential care, receive the very best support.

And there is a large group of people whose job, or whose volunteer commitment, is focused on the provision of appropriate care for older people, whether that be through community services, care in the home, or residential support.

This is not to say that there aren’t large gaps in the system and significant exceptions to these patterns of care and support.  There are indeed such gaps.  But our personal reaction to these shortcomings and the popular reaction, highlight the high standards to which are very broadly accepted.

Not by accident, these values are fully consistent with our religious traditions. 

Pope Francis, to take one recent example, devoted one of his 2015 general audiences at St Peter’s to this general theme, when he reflected that ‘ societies that mistreat older people are infected with a ‘virus of death’ and put their own futures in jeopardy.’[1]  The 550 Catholic residential and community aged care services across Australia[2] give concrete witness to the living out of this faith-inspired commitment. The Pope went on to remind all his listeners of their own personal duty to respect and care for those who are aged.

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There are gaps in the fabric of our care, deriving from policy and funding shortcomings, and from our failure to meet our own expectations.  Elder abuse is a recognised problem.  Neglect clearly happens.

And there are other aspects of failure and areas of shortcomings that relate to the structures of society. 

Linguistic and ethnic diversity, for example, pose particular challenges.  These are being addressed in some residences and in some areas, but gaps remain, and new ones emerge. 

Poverty and homelessness pose particular challenges.  There seems to be a preponderance of aged care residential facilities in wealthier suburbs; and not all support services can act in true solidarity with people whose lifestyle and mode of interaction can be so challenging to established systems. 

Within families and communities, within the Catholic system and beyond there are responses to these issues.  But the responses are far from complete, and there are other issues, and more continue to emerge.

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In this complex environment, where there are, nevertheless, some commonly accepted principles, even more complexity arises when an older Australian is in prison or commits a crime,

This is not just a theoretical issue.

Because of premature ageing, the age of 50 is the established yardstick for classifying a prisoner as ‘aged’. 

In June 2004, there were 435 prisoners in Victoria aged 50 year or over, which was 12% of the then prison population. Ten years later, in June 2014, prisoner numbers had increased by 60% to 6,113.  But by then there were 886 prisoners aged 50 or over, an increase of 104% over 2004.  [3]319 prisoners, equivalent to 5.2% of the prison population, were aged 60 or over.

As expected, many of these people have grown old within the prison system.  Of the 7,287 people admitted to prison in 2013/14,    643, or 6.4%, were aged 50 or over, and 136, or 1.9% were aged 60 or over.[4] 

The numbers of aged prisoners is increasing faster than that of the general prison population, and faster than that of the population generally.  

There seem to be several reasons for this increase.

Recent changes in sentencing laws and practices have contributed, as has a tightening of parole requirements, and of offences relating to parole.  (It is of interest that these changes have also impacted disproportionately on other disadvantaged groups.  A recent increase in the gap in imprisonment between Aboriginal Victorians and the general population has largely been attributed by the Victorian Government to recent legislative changes around parole and bail.[5]

Other factors at play include that a higher proportion of older prisoners are convicted of crimes attracting longer sentences - sex offences, homicide and drug related. Sex offences against children in particular, which often come to light only decades after the offence has been committed, and which are treated very seriously by the courts, tend to result in the incarceration of older people.  ‘Cold case’ technology can now result in convictions for offences of varying types long after the event, when the offender can be many years older.

The ageing of the prison population raises many issues, relating to the dignity of the person, the high costs of services within a prison environment, and the objectives to be achieved from sentencing in any particular case?

  • Are non-custodial sentences, or sentences to other types of facilities, more appropriate for aged offenders?

  • Is the physical design of prisons suitable for older residents, who might have difficulty covering large distances, or who might need additional time to cover distance or complete tasks?

  • Are they more vulnerability to victimisation?

  • Are the much greater costs involved in meeting their physical and mental health needs justified?

  • When physical capabilities decline, who can provide the physical and personal care that is needed?  Should prison guards be trained as personal carers?  Other prisoners? 

  • If someone is dying, should family be allowed to gather? 

  • Are release and resettlement issues aligned with the needs of older prisoners?

Varying responses to these and other issues have developed around the world.

Sentencing in Victoria has some regard to age:  in a leading case Goodwin [2001] VSC 519), where the 84 year old offender had pleaded guilty to having stabbed his 82 year old wife, the judge took into account that:. 

any prison sentence you were required to serve must represent a substantial period of the life that is left to you. Because of that circumstance alone I intend to be as merciful as possible to you in the length of the sentence to be imposed.

But for the most part it is the effects of age that impact on the sentence that is applied. 

Once a custodial sentence has been handed down.  a nursing home wing or facility within the prison system are options that have been adopted where needed.  Long Bay in Sydney has such a segregated facility[6], within the prison hospital there (although a recent report from the Inspector of Custodial Services was scathing about the treatment of elderly prisoners in NSW generally.)

In a variety of ways, external care providers work in harmony with prison authorities, to separate the custodial role from that of the care provider.  Under recent changes to UK legislation, local authorities are required to work with prison authorities to assess care needs of prisoners; and there are examples in various jurisdictions of prisons developing local responses that rely on linkages with local communities and their facilities. 

A report in 2011 for the Australian Bureau of Statistics[7] identified a range of implications of the continuing rise in the number of older prisoners.  Most of these are already evident.  They include:

  • Continuing pressure on prison health services, including demand for specialist services.

  • Greater need for physical facilities that older prisoners can cope with

  • Development of appropriate social, educational and recreational programs

  • Consequent higher per capita budget requirements

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Many of our general community standards of care for older people are not often applied to those in prison.  These include community inclusion, loving care, close contact with family, appropriate physical and social conditions, health care, and respect for the dignity of each person.

Which of these standards should we relax for people in prison?  Which of these can be done away with without undermining the minimum acceptable levels of respect for the human dignity of an older person?  Which of them would we want set aside if an elderly family member were to be incarcerated?

We need to have the conversation.

 
DF, 23Dec2015 




 
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