Friday, December 1, 2023
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Frank Ward at the John Howard Society in Abbotsford, B.C.

Older prisoners pose new challenges for Canada’s prisons

Frank Ward has spent the better part of his life behind bars. He’s served 19 years of a life sentence…

Ward: I’m tired of doing time, I don’t want to go back to prison.

Frank Ward has spent the better part of his life behind bars. He’s served 19 years of a life sentence for murder on his most recent conviction.

The 58-year-old is one of a growing number of aging inmates in Canada’s Correctional System.

“When an older guy used to walk on the yard you automatically gave him respect because he was older. Today it’s not like that, they don’t give a shit who we are,” Ward said.

There has been a 50 per cent increase of older offenders in federal custody over the last decade, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada, said.

With twice the number of older inmates the rules inside have changed.

Age no longer affords the kind of respect people like Ward may once have had.  Some older offenders are even being victimized by younger inmates.

[column size=”one-third”]Listen:
Ward: My dad was a bank robber (1:45)
[audio:|titles=My dad was a bank robber] [/column] [column size=”one-third”] Listen:
Ward: I believe in rehabilitation (1:28)
[audio:|titles=I believe in rehabilitation] [/column] [column size=”one-third” last=”true”]Listen:
Ward: I want to spend time outside (1:56)
[audio:|titles=Whatever time I do have left, I want to spend it outside] [/column]

“My office continues to see cases where older and more disabled offenders are bullied or intimidated into giving out their prescription meds to offenders involved in the institutional drug trade,” Sapers said at a recent forum on the challenges of aging and the correctional system.

What worries Sapers is that the prison system isn’t equipped to deal with older offender needs, which if unaddressed, may pose bigger challenges down the road.

The total population of inmates in the federal system is just over 14,000, Sapers said. Prisoners over 50-years-old currently make up 20 per cent of total inmates inside penitentiaries and 30 per cent of offenders under correctional supervision on the outside.

“We are now squeezing a growing proportion of older offenders into already overcrowded prisons, that were designed and built for a younger generation,” Sapers said.

Maggie Aronoff, executive director of the John Howard Society of the Fraser Valley, says there is potential conflict between long-term, older offenders and younger inmates.

“Especially if you’re in a situation where you’re forced into double bunking. You’ve got your tried and true path. This is how you keep yourself safe and sane in the institution over the long haul, and you got some young punk coming into your house and disturbing your routine and bringing in all this crap and being loud, you know. All this stuff makes your situation and your incarceration that much harder,” she said.

Aging in prison, aging out of crime

People outside of prison are considered elderly when they reach 65, but the term “older offender” refers to anyone over the age of 50-years-old. The stress of incarceration on the mind and body adds 10 years to a person’s chronological age, Sapers said.

As offenders age they also become less likely to engage in further criminal activity.

Ward has spent over half of his life in prison and is ready for a different kind of life. The Montreal-born Irish-Canadian was exposed to a criminal lifestyle at a young age. His father was a bank robber who spent most of Ward’s childhood in prison.

He has prior convictions for manslaughter and drug trafficking, and is finishing a life sentence for murder. He has completed many programs for violent offenders and looks forward to a life outside bars. Once released, he will continue to be supervised by the correctional system for the rest of his life.

Ward is currently incarcerated at the minimum-security Ferndale Institution. He leaves the prison on escorted temporary absences two days per week to volunteer at the John Howard Society of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.

His correctional plan also allows for unescorted temporary absences from the institution one day a week, during which he visits a longtime friend in White Rock.

The time away from the prison reminds him that he still has an opportunity to live outside prison walls.

“So you get a little taste of life again, you know, and you see that there’s something out there. And in all fairness, my days are over, as far as criminal activity, I’m an older guy now. I’m tired of doing time, I don’t want to go back to prison,” Ward said.

Ward will have a parole hearing in April. If he’s denied parole he will have to wait six months for the next review. He is optimistic.

“I’ve done the right things, I’ve done what was asked of me but I’m gonna sit in front of a group of people that may not think the way my case manager thinks. What I do is mentally prepare myself for that. If they say no, well I continue on the same path that I am.”

Programs for rehabilitation

Rehabilitation has been a key objective since the 1940s, according to the Correctional Service of Canada.

Prisoners must complete rehabilitative programs before they have a chance for parole so they can lower their risk factors and reintegrate into the community.

On any given day, only about 25 per cent of inmates are engaged in programs, Sapers said.

Priority for programming is given to inmates who are closer to their release date, which means that older offenders often wait longer for access to resources that will prepare them for a return to the community. In addition, older inmates often do not participate in rehabilitative programs because of mobility challenges or a lack of motivation.

“Aging inmates rarely access existing counseling, educational and vocational prison programs. Many aging offenders simply elect to spend long periods of time locked in their cell during working or programming hours,” Sapers said.

Many of the rehabilitative programs are geared toward offenders who will be released while they are still young. These programs teach skills which may not resonate with inmates who are of retirement age.

LifeLine workers at the John Howard Society help prisoners at the end of their life sentences who are least likely to have a support network outside of prison reintegrate into the community.

Sapers says that older offenders need help learning how to manage living on a pension and how to access services for seniors in the community.

Ward, still young enough to have a life outside of prison, remembers the moment when he set a goal to get out and stay out of prison and began taking the programs.

“You go through stages doing life, you work towards a goal. My goal was once I got nine years in I said OK, nine years, I was eligible for parole. I was still married at the time. There was still hope, you know what I mean?”

Ward got serious about rehabilitation.

“Sort of a light bulb went off and the thing is, I had the opportunity in my past life that I knew what life was about, I had the opportunity to live…so I was fortunate, I got lucky, worked at it and had help–people like Maggie and John Howard, and one thing leads to another,” he said.

Lack of strategy

The Correctional Service does not have a dedicated strategy to deal with elderly inmates. In fact, the group tasked with making policy recommendations about aging in prison has been disbanded, Sapers said.

Ten years ago the Correctional Service of Canada’s Older Offender Division released a report outlining ways of dealing with aging offenders that would ease pressure on federal institutions. The report included recommendations for staff training, health care (including palliative care) and structural planning. To date, none of the report’s recommendations have been implemented, Sapers said.

“Failure to anticipate a growing offender population and cost increases will place further constraints on correctional budgets and decision making in the very near future,” he said.

There is no doubt challenges of maintaining older inmates in the federal corrections system will increase as the baby boomer population continues to age.