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.
older Australians is a core value in our society.
fundamentally about love of neighbour. Because
someone grows older, or because they are old when we meet them, doesn’t
diminish their dignity
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.
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.
accident, these values are fully consistent with our religious traditions.
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.’ The 550 Catholic residential and community aged
care services across Australia
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.
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.
are other aspects of failure and areas of shortcomings that relate to the
structures of society.
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.
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
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
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.
premature ageing, the age of 50 is the established yardstick for classifying a
prisoner as ‘aged’.
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
prisoners, equivalent to 5.2% of the prison population, were aged 60 or over.
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.
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.
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
sentences, or sentences to other types of facilities, more appropriate for aged
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
Are the much
greater costs involved in meeting their physical and mental health needs
capabilities decline, who can provide the physical and personal care that is
needed? Should prison guards be trained
as personal carers? Other
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  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:.
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, 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 identified a range of
implications of the continuing rise in the number of older prisoners. Most of these are already evident. They include:
pressure on prison health services, including demand for specialist services.
Greater need for
physical facilities that older prisoners can cope with
appropriate social, educational and recreational programs
per capita budget requirements
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.
 Key Statistics on
the Victorian Prison System 2009–10 to 2013–14, p 12
 P 48, 2015 Aboriginal progress report