ARCHIVED - Speaking Notes for
Mr. Howard Sapers
Correctional Investigator of Canada

Appearance before the Special Senate Committee on Aging

Monday, February 4, 2008

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As Correctional Investigator, my job is to be an independent Ombudsman for federal offenders. It's also my role to review and make recommendations on the policies and procedures of the Correctional Service of Canada, to ensure that areas of concern are identified and appropriately addressed.

My mandate expresses important elements of the criminal justice system. The Office of the Correctional Investigator reflects Canadian values of respect for the law, for human rights, and the public's expectation that correctional staff and senior managers are accountable for the administration of law and policy on the public's behalf. Good Corrections after all equals public safety.

Today, I am here to discuss my Office's concerns with regard to Older Offenders. Older Offenders have historically been defined by the Correctional Service as those 50 years old and over because the aging process is accelerated by approximately ten years in a correctional setting due to factors which includes socio-economic status, access to medical care and difficult lifestyle. The percentage of Older Offenders among the inmate population is about 16%; or about 2200 federal inmates (270 of whom are 65 years old or older).

The steady increase in the number of Older Offenders incarcerated in federal Corrections is not a new issue. The Correctional Service became increasingly aware of the rise in the number of Older Offenders about 10 years ago. At the time, the Correctional Service of Canada recognized that its capacity to address the needs of Older Offenders was deficient, and that if no action were taken, the problem would get worse as it was anticipated that the number of Older Offenders was going to continue to increase.

In November 1999, the Correctional Service took decisive action and established a new division - the Older Offender Division - with the mandate “to elaborate a sound correctional strategy adapted to the needs of older offenders”.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator supported the Correctional Service at the time for its proactive steps to address an emerging problem and was involved in the consultation with the Correctional Service. The Correctional Service elaborated a comprehensive strategy that dealt with the key needs of Older Offenders, namely:

  • institutional accommodation planning;
  • Community Corrections (supervision and programs on release);
  • health care and mental health (including palliative care);
  • staffing and training to address elderly offender needs; and,
  • assessment, case management and release planning.

In its 2000-2001 Annual Report, my Office characterized the Correctional Service's Report on Elderly Offenders as “a landmark document which, if its recommendations are implemented, will go far in addressing the problems of this group”. At the time, the Correctional Service committed to address issues associated with accommodations, palliative care, reintegration options and programs development.

Unfortunately, shortly after the release of its report, the Correctional Service moved away from implementing its numerous recommendations. Initially, a “shift of priorities” was cited as a reason for not moving forward, but later it became clear that a lack of resources was also part of the difficulty. The Correctional Service began to distance itself from its report and adopted an approach of providing “individualized health care and programming based on an assessment of each inmate's needs”, regardless of age.

In March 2004, the Canadian Journal of Public Health published “A Health Care Needs Assessment of Federal Inmates in Canada”, and noted that there has been a 60% increase in the number of inmates aged 50 and over with an 87% increase in those 65 and over since 1993. The report urged that specific attention be paid to the health care needs of this growing segment of the inmate population. The Report described the psychosocial concerns with this population as follows:

  • estrangement from or lack of connection to other inmates given the relatively small percentage of older inmates;
  • physical vulnerability to more serious consequences of assault;
  • more difficulty adjusting to a new environment and greater length of time to do so;
  • higher rate of completed suicide;
  • greater possibility of dying during incarceration; and,
  • higher incidence of loss of external support systems (e.g., spouse, family, friends).

The Report highlights a number of planning issues to be addressed, including:

  • mainstreaming older inmates in general inmate population versus housing in special units;
  • physical plant design (distances between buildings, stairs, crowding, space for wheelchairs);
  • programs and services (dietary needs, adaptation of programming to physical, mental, and social needs); and,
  • staff training (different challenges compared with young male population).

Before I proceed with a more detailed account of the needs and challenges of Older Offenders, I would like to acknowledge some positive initiatives implemented by the Correctional Service:

  • Pacific/RTC Institution has an excellent palliative care program. Inmates taking care of other inmates in need (elderly and physically challenged offenders) are called “Peer Care Assistants”. They are assigned a specific inmate in need of assistance, and help this person throughout the entire day. This is considered a job, so they are paid for doing this. I understand that the majority of Peer Care Assistants take this job seriously - they even sometimes call this Office on their behalf.
  • To ensure a consistent approach to palliative care services within the Correctional Service, it is now a requirement to implement the Palliative Care Guidelines when a terminal illness is diagnosed. These guidelines as well as those related to discharge planning are currently under review.
  • Some Community Residential Facilities, or half-way houses, have developed expertise in caring for elderly offenders.

In spite of the above, there continues to be no comprehensive plan focused on the needs of Older Offenders, and the cases brought to our attention in recent years do not suggest that sufficient progress has been made to respond to their growing needs. Let me provide you with a few examples to illustrate the types of situations that we are called upon to review:

  • some Older Offenders are housed in medium- and maximum-security institutions even though they have serious mobility impairments or illnesses that would negate any public safety concerns. This restricts their access to a range of community supports and correctional programs;
  • many Older Offenders, some in their 70's and very sick or disabled, have passed their parole eligibility dates, which raises the question as to why they have not been released into the community under some form of conditional release or parole. Recent CSC data show that more than 150 incarcerated offenders over the age of 65 are past their day- or full-parole eligibility dates;
  • the Correctional Service continues its effort to secure adequate and permanent funding to enhance its capacity to provide mental health services to the growing number of offenders with mental health issues. The percentage of this group of offenders has more than doubled in the last ten years. Older Offenders with mental health issues and cognitive deficits are vulnerable, and the Correctional Service's acknowledged lack of capacity to respond to their mental health needs continues to be of great concern for this Office. Many offenders with mental health problems end up in segregation for their protection, or are victimized by other offenders;
  • the lack of, or delay in accessing, programs offered by the Correctional Service to its inmate population has become a major problem. There are now long waiting lists resulting in programs not being provided until very late in offenders' sentences, often well beyond their parole eligibility dates. Delayed program participation is directly linked to delayed conditional release. This can result in offenders being ill-prepared to return into the community, and when they are released it is too often on Statutory Release with decreased length of supervision by a Parole Officer;
  • few initiatives or accommodation options have been developed to address the physical needs of Older Offenders. Specific programming and special accommodation alternatives are required;
  • some Older Offenders feel isolated or have withdrawn from healthy activities as a result of a lack of opportunities available to them. Many choose to stay in their cells because of fear of interacting with the rest of the inmate population, or by necessity as the physical environment, programming or work opportunities are not adequate to respond to their needs and limitations;
  • access to patient-centered chronic, long-term and palliative care in federal Corrections is very limited, and additional resources are required;
  • on occasion, my Office has investigated cases involving significant delays in obtaining items critical to an offender's well-being and dignity, such as hearing aids, dentures and adult incontinence products. Special diets for Older Offenders are also rarely provided;
  • staff are insufficiently trained and ill-equipped to respond to the needs of Older Offenders, particularly those with significant mental health issues, serious mobility constraints and medical conditions. Additional awareness and sensitivity training for front-line staff is needed, and the Correctional Service must recruit staff with expertise and experience in the area of gerontology; and,
  • the inmate allowance system and work opportunities are not responsive to the unique situations of Older Offenders. Some Older Offenders are unable to work because of their own physical limitations but also because the limited work opportunities available in correctional institutions do not accommodate for their special needs. Moreover, the institutional setting does not provide productive activities to make use of their time. Many of these offenders spend much of their day alone in their cell. Lack of paid work or program participation also results in limited access to essential canteen items available for purchase.

Clearly, the need to do better is obvious. Lack of resources certainly appears to us as one significant barrier the Correctional Service faces. The Service must also ensure that available financial and human resources are allocated to meet these identified and legally required needs.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the Special Committee on Aging for its interest in reviewing a less known reality for some aging Canadians - the challenges of aging with dignity in the federal correctional context. I would like to take this opportunity to leave the Committee with a few suggestions:

  • in 2000, a Parliamentary Sub-Committee recommended amending the CCRA and “.adding offenders who are young, elderly or have serious health problems to the list of offender groups with special needs”. Should the CCRA come before the Senate for review, I would suggest that you consider such an amendment;
  • this Parliamentary Sub-Committee also recommended that the CCRA be amended to make offenders serving life sentences or indeterminate sentences who are terminally ill eligible for parole on compassionate grounds, which is not currently the case. Again, should the CCRA come before the Senate for review, I urge you to consider such an amendment; and,
  • finally, I recommend that the Sub-Committee encourage the Correctional Service to develop and implement programs, initiatives and services which will comprehensively address the needs of Older Offenders.

I will be happy to answer any question you may have.

Thank you.