Life in prison. It's a familiar enough concept, and it's rare that we give a second thought to those who find themselves on the receiving end of a life sentence. If we do, it's usually when people complain that such prison terms still aren't long enough, given the crimes involved.
But what does a life sentence really mean? A report presented in Parliament today considers the question from a practical angle: It means that a lot of people are growing old in jail, and this has serious implications for Canada's prison system.
According to Howard Sapers, Canada's Correctional Investigator, there has been a 50% increase in the number of prisoners over the age of 50 in the last 10 years, and many of these inmates are finding life on the inside to be increasingly difficult. For one thing, it's not easy to get around a prison designed to hold a maximum amount of younger inmates when you're dealing with the physical limitations that come with aging - it's hard enough to climb stairs when you walk with a cane, let alone use a wheelchair, and many older inmates find themselves unable to access things as simple as fresh air and basic care.
But the problem goes beyond limited mobility. A greater concern cited in the report is having "vulnerable, older" inmates having to share such close quarters with younger, "more aggressive" prisoners. Sapers reports elderly prisoners being intimidated and abused by more recently arrived convicts: forced to surrender medicine, having their meals stolen, bullied by cell-mates. Many aging prisoners report describe themselves as "living in fear" of their fellow inmates, with life in jail becoming more and more difficult as time goes on.
Things aren't likely to get much better for these aging inmates, either. With prisons growing more and more crowded, the problems the older convicts face are getting worse and worse, and the Canadian government's law and order agenda isn't about to change that any time soon.
So what can be done to alleviate these conditions? Sapers' report suggests that prison staff will have to be trained in dealing with a geriatric population, and that any expansion or renovations of prisons should take into account accessibility needs for older inmates.