British Columbia

Elderly inmate's death highlights lack of aging strategy in Canada's prisons

Correctional Service Canada needs to find a better way to address the needs of aging inmates, advocates say.

'If people are sufficiently senile that they can't remember the nature of their crime, what's the point?"

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, more than 6,600 prisoners in Canadian institutions were aged 50 or over. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Convicted killer Francis McLaughlin was a free man for more than 25 years before the parole board noticed a change in his behaviour and sent him back to prison, where he died about 10 months later.

McLaughlin was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in 1978 for the shooting death of a woman described in parole board documents as an acquaintance following "a night of drinking.'' He was granted full parole in 1989.

The documents say his freedom was revoked when he became "cantankerous,'' and failed to show up for meetings with his parole supervisor.

McLaughlin, the documents say, had dementia.

Prisons not 'designed' for seniors: advocate

While the circumstances of McLaughlin's case are unusual, an advocate for people in the criminal justice system calls his case "unbelievable'' and says it shows that Correctional Service Canada needs to find a better way to address the needs of aging inmates.

"The prison system is not adequately designed to deal with many of the issues aging prisoners face, both the cognitive impairments of age and the physical impairments,'' said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

Latimer said her group is seeing an increase in inmates and recently released offenders who have age-related health and mental health problems.

"If people are sufficiently senile that they can't remember the nature of their crime, what's the point in continuing to punish them for it?'' she asked.

Parole officers reported McLaughlin's behaviour had become unpredictable, but they recognized the reasons were beyond his control, says the parole board decision dated Feb. 18, 2016.

"If people are sufficiently senile that they can't remember the nature of their crime, what's the point in continuing to punish them for it?''- Catherine Latimer , executive director, John Howard Society of Canada

It says his case management team could not find a care facility for McLaughlin in the community.

He appealed the termination of his parole, but the board's appeal division affirmed the decision last July.

McLaughin was taken to a prison in Abbotsford, B.C., where he died in November at age 79.

A medium-security Matsqui prison in Abbotsford, B.C. (Richard Lam/CP)

The 2014-15 annual report from the office of the Correctional Investigator singles out the problem of an aging prison population, saying one in four federal inmates are 50 or older. The report says the number of aging or older people behind bars has risen by nearly one-third in the five years before the report was issued.

While those offenders usually pose less risk, they have greater health needs. The report says prisons are increasingly under strain to perform as hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities.

The correctional service said in a statement that the needs of older offenders are met through individual plans.

"CSC acknowledges that challenges exist in addressing the multiple needs of aging offenders, but remains committed in its efforts to continue to develop strategies in meeting those needs,'' the statement said.

The department classifies those over 50 as an older offender. Statistics show there were 6,675 older offenders in the 2015-16 fiscal year, including people living in federal facilities and those who were in the community under supervision.

'Penitentiaries shouldn't become hospices'

In many cases, it doesn't make sense to keep seniors in prisons, said Ivan Zinger, Canada's Correctional Investigator.

Zinger is partly responsible for reviewing and recommending changes to the correctional services on systemic areas of concern.

Many older offenders report suffering from a range of health issues, which are all expensive for prisons to care for.

"Penitentiaries shouldn't become hospices,'' Zinger said.

"It's costly, there's no public safety benefits and it raises issues of human rights for many.''

More to be done: CSC

Zinger said his office routinely receives complaints from aging offenders who say they don't have the access they need to specialists, medical devices or diets.

Corrections said in a statement that considerations are made for the physical requirements of older and aging offenders.

A facility like a nursing home run by Corrections would be a more suitable environment for aging inmates with physical or mental health issues, Zinger said, adding that more people should be allowed to leave prison under compassionate release.

Corrections said in a statement that "offenders with a life-threatening, non-curable illness'' can apply for early compassionate release.

But Zinger said few releases are granted.

The correctional investigators office has been urging Corrections Canada for over a decade to create a strategy on older offenders, and the department accepted the recommendation last year.