Written by Liam Clune

Elderly and vulnerable people are being failed by penal institutions worldwide, according to Prison Reform International’s report “Global Prison Trends 2019”.

Penal Reform International (PRI) is an independent non-governmental organisation that for 30 years has been working to ensure that people in prison are treated humanely, a cause that is shared by us here at Prisoners Abroad. And the PRI’s 2019 report makes for grim reading indeed, especially for those of advanced years.

In Britain, we hear a lot about the “Grey Wave”, a dramatic increase in the proportion of our population that is over 60 years old. This population shift is mirrored in many countries around the world, placing ever more urgent demands on often unprepared penal systems.

In Japan, the number of prisoners aged 60 or older rose from 7% cent of the total prison population in 2008 to 19% in 2016, and in Singapore, the number of prisoners over 60 doubled between 2012 and 2016. In the UK, the proportion of prisoners aged over 50 increased from 7% in 2002 to 16% per cent in March 2018.

“But why should I care about this?” you may ask. Well, firstly, older people in prison face health conditions associated with the advancement of age, such as falls, increased frailty, dementia, incontinence and sensory impairment. These demands place extra strain on systems that are already outdated and underfunded. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, it costs twice as much to imprison someone over the age of 50 even if they are in good health. In some cases, it may cost up to five times more when ongoing medical costs are taken into account.

There is also the unequal effect that treatment in prison can have on older people. A recent UK study found that older jails are ill-equipped for prisoners in wheelchairs or with mobility problems. It highlighted examples of prisoners who struggled to wash and look after themselves, with yet others who were unable to get help in the night after falling.

Now imagine that you are one of these prisoners, but instead of being held in a facility where you speak the language and can be visited by friends or family, imagine that you are held on the other side of the world, in a place where you can’t communicate. Imagine being held in a prison where the food is not sufficient to keep a young adult healthy, let alone someone of your advancing years. Imagine being held in a place where you are not allowed a wheelchair, and where your level of treatment depends on your ability to pay your prisons guards.

At Prisoners Abroad we can attest to the both the growing problem of aging prisoner populations as well as the continuing struggle to ensure humane treatment for those held overseas. We helped 267 clients over the age of 60 last year, 42 more than the previous year. Prisoners over the age of 45 make up 56% of our clients, in comparison with 38% ten years ago. 37 of those clients are classified as vulnerable due to their advance aged.

Accordingly we would agree with PRI’s conclusion that we need to think hard about how we treat our prison populations, beginning with a thorough re-evaluation of the way that the elderly are treated in prisons across the world.