Corrections Canada must respond to demographic shift behind bars, watchdog says

Canada's prisons watchdog says Correctional Service Canada must wake up to a major demographic transformation inside its penitentiaries. The prison population in Quebec and Ontario is aging quickly, while the Prairie region is home to a swelling number of the system's youngest offenders.

Howard Sapers says older inmates have different needs than younger offenders

Canada's correctional investigator says the federal government needs to respond to a demographic shift taking place inside the federal prison system, including a younger inmate population in the Prairie provinces. (Thomas Porter/Canadian Press)

Canada's prison watchdog says Correctional Service Canada must wake up to a major demographic transformation inside its penitentiaries.

The prison population in Quebec and Ontario is aging quickly, while the Prairie region is home to a swelling number of the system's youngest offenders, according to correctional investigator Howard Sapers.

His office reports that more than half of all federal offenders aged 20 and under are incarcerated in Prairie prisons. At the same time, the number of inmates over the age of 50 has grown by 78 per cent over the last 10 years — and most of those individuals are incarcerated in Quebec and Ontario. The oldest person serving time right now is 87.

Sapers said CSC maintains a number of blanket policies that don't reflect the different needs of those two distinct populations of offenders. Food is one example.

"To assume that a standard meal is going to meet the nutritional needs of an 18- or 19-year-old I think is a false assumption, if it is exactly the same meal as a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old is getting," he told CBC News.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sapers said older offenders complain about needing a second blanket or being unable to get over-the-counter medications to deal with some of their age-related digestive, skin or pain issues. 

"They can't access these treatments primarily because they can't afford it because they're also not engaged in prison industries so they're not earning enough income in the prison to be able to afford to buy these things through the prison commissary."

In an email, CSC said each inmate is issued basic clothing and bedding items upon their arrival at an institution. "It is up to the discretion of the institutional head whether or not additional items can be issued."

Different needs 

Sapers said there aren't enough jobs for everyone behind bars, which is one area where the very young and very old have something in common. Both groups of offenders are at the bottom of the list when it comes to finding work inside the penitentiary, where people can earn a maximum of $6.90 per day.

The correctional investigator says CSC puts a lot of emphasis and energy into individual case work. While that's not a bad thing, Sapers said he feels the correctional service is missing the trends.

"It would be wrong to say that those needs are being ignored or not being addressed at all because that's not true. But they're not being addressed in a coherent and coordinated and strategic fashion … So again you have these general policies that apply to everyone and they miss some of the specific and unique needs of the populations we're talking about."

Howard Sapers, Canada's prison watchdog, says demographic shifts in prisons aren't 'being addressed in a coherent and coordinated and strategic fashion.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Sapers said how CSC meets the specific needs of the older and youngest offenders is idiosyncratic, varying by region and even institution, depending on the skills of specific employees.

"There are correctional sites in this country where the needs aren't really being addressed at all," he says.

In an August 2014 research paper, CSC projected at least five more years of growth in the proportion of older offenders. To date, the correctional service does not have any units or facilities specifically designed for older offenders.

In an email to CBC News, CSC said it does give consideration to the physical requirements of aging offenders such as providing step-stools for getting in and out of vehicles, making areas of penitentiaries wheelchair accessible and installing special plumbing fixtures.

'Regular meal plan is adequate'

As for food, CSC said inmates get adequate servings with appropriate nutritional content in accordance with Canada's Food Guide.

"The regular meal plan is adequate for all federally-sentenced offenders under our jurisdiction and is based on a menu that is standardized across the country," CSC told CBC News.

When it comes to employment behind bars, CSC says offenders can be assigned to employment as an element of their correctional plan.

Sapers points out, though, that older offenders at retirement age require a different kind of correctional plan than younger offenders, who will eventually be released into the workforce.

"We've had older offenders complain to us that they are denied participation in many activities, such as work inside institutions strictly because of their age. This has lots of ripple effects," Sapers said. "It means more time by themselves … and it also means less financial support and that has impact on their ability to use the telephone.

"It also has impact on their ability to access over-the-counter medication. It also has impact on their ability to buy postage stamps and write letters home."


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