Prisoner populations nationally and internationally are aging; a trend which is echoed in Western Australia. While older prisoners can offer a stabilising influence within a prison setting, an aging prison population compounds resource challenges. This is because older prisoners are more likely to have poorer physical and mental health and require higher levels of support compared to the wider prisoner population. Older prisoners may also have different needs in terms of daily regime, in-prison support services, infrastructure, and transition from prison requirements.
Defining an ‘older’ prisoner
There is no consensus as to what makes an ‘older prisoner’ with varied definitions ranging from 45 years and over, to 65 years plus. Despite the disparity, many jurisdictions use the definition of 50 years and over. We have also adopted this definition in our Revised Code of Inspection Standards for Adult Custodial Services, and subsequently for this review. This is based on research which has identified a 10-year differential between the overall health of prisoners and the general population.
The difference, and what is referred to by some researchers as an ‘acceleration of the aging process’ is generally attributed to socioeconomic, lifestyle, and biomedical factors. These include circumstances of poverty, housing instability, and reduced access to medical care, but also risky lifestyles and behaviours such as substance misuse and poor nutrition that are typically associated with poorer physical and mental health. Research also indicates that the stress and harmful effects of prison environments can accelerate age-related illnesses and conditions.
Throughout this review we refer to older prisoners as a collective. However, like so many cohorts within the prison population, they are not a homogenous group. They have varied and individual characteristics and needs, and they cannot be stereotyped.