'There isn't anywhere to go': Ontario halfway house for aging inmates addressing gap in prison system

Haley House, a unique halfway house in Ontario, specifically caters to the needs of older and palliative offenders on parole — a type of facility prisoner advocates say we need more of.

1 in 4 federal inmates behind bars is aged 50 or older, says Canada's correctional investigator

Cliff Strong, 75, is on parole and says he’s lucky to have a bed at Haley House. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
Listen to the full episode50:07

Cliff Strong still wears his clothes to bed — a habit of having spent decades behind bars and never knowing who might be there when the cell doors open. 

Strong uses a motorized wheelchair, and suffers from diabetes, oedema and a bad hip. (Debbie Pacheco/CBC)

He's been out on parole for nearly two years and currently lives at Haley House, a unique halfway house in Peterborough, Ont., run by the non-profit Peterborough Reintegration Services and funded mainly by Correctional Service Canada (CSC). 

Haley House looks like your average bungalow, except its residents are mainly senior or palliative federal offenders on parole with housing conditions. Some are terminally ill and near the end of life, others have chronic diseases or trouble with mobility. 

"The [staff] are compassionate," Strong told Out in the Open.

"Anything that you may have as a problem, they're hands-on immediately. And just a feeling of camaraderie, you know. That's very different from what I'm used to."

In 1975, Strong was convicted of second-degree murder in a stabbing death and sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled, but later sent back to prison after sexually assaulting two girls.

All told, he spent about 36 years behind bars. "But it was my own fault," he said.

Now the 75-year-old uses a motorized wheelchair. Due to Parkinson's, his left hand shakes a lot. He suffers from diabetes, oedema — which means his legs are badly swollen — and a bad hip.

But there are few places that can handle Strong's needs, which prisoner advocates say is a problem.

"[Haley House] is basically one of only two that I'm aware of [across Canada] that caters to this inmate population. And, to me, it represents the future of corrections," said Ivan Zinger, Canada's correctional investigator.

When corrections tells me, 'We'd love for these individuals to be released, but there's just no capacity,' I tell them, 'You create that capacity.'- Ivan Zinger, Canada's correctional investigator

According to the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI), one in four federal inmates behind bars is 50 or older — which classifies them as older offenders because serving time can add about 10 years to a chronological age.

In response to the number of aging offenders behind bars and on parole, the OCI and the Canadian Human Rights Commission are set to release a report later this fall on what they call "the systemic discrimination of aging and elderly offenders."

'There isn't anywhere to go'

"The system is trying to play catch-up," said Jeff Morgan, Haley House's casework manager. "Nobody stepped back and said, 'Hey, we got these older guys, what are we going to do with them? When they get sick, when they go out and we still have to monitor them, where are we going to put them?'

"You end up with guys that are sitting inside [prison], that are granted parole — but they can't leave, because there isn't anywhere to go," said Morgan, a retired, 32-year veteran of the Peterborough Police Service.

Jeff Morgan, a veteran police officer, says the system is playing 'catch-up' with aging inmates. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Haley House has 10 beds — and each one is spoken for.

It's unfair that an offender who is granted parole has to stay in prison because no one in the community can take them, Zinger says.

"When corrections tells me, 'We'd love for these individuals to be released, but there's just no capacity,' I tell them, 'You create that capacity.'"

Zinger believes older offenders who no longer pose a safety risk should serve the rest of their sentences in a community setting. It's significantly cheaper and a more compassionate route, he says, and it's a matter of CSC best allocating available resources.

Haley House looks like your average bungalow. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"Somebody who is palliative, who is terminally ill, who has severe mobility restrictions, you kind of have to scratch your head [and ask], 'What are they doing in a penitentiary?'"

In an email statement to Out in the Open, the CSC said its framework to address the needs of older offenders is informed by consultations with experts in geriatrics, correctional health care and end-of-life care. That framework will be reviewed at the end of this fall.

For those requiring palliative care, the CSC says it "aims to assist offenders in living their remaining time in comfort (relieve suffering) and dignity."

Access to supports in prison and community

Supports like a part-time personal support worker, a dedicated chef, accessible washrooms, an elevator and medical devices all exist at Haley House, but are not typical at other halfway houses, Morgan says.

In prison, aids like Strong's motorized wheelchair would be "very difficult to get," according to Zinger. Older inmates often report a lack of access to medical devices and pain medication, he said.

After undergoing hip surgery while in prison, Strong said he had a "long, long struggle" to get Tylenol 3 because similar medications have been abused by some in the past.

Cliff Strong spent more than 30 years in prison. Now on parole with severe health issues, he says people like him deserve compassion despite the crimes they've committed. 8:17

And he said he wasn't given the painkillers for as long as he felt he needed them.

"Living between pain medication is a terrible thing, you know. It's just so scruffy."

For its part, the CSC said "the process for managing pain within CSC is the same as in the community" and an inmate's medical history is first assessed.

Inmates' needs are continually reviewed and access to accommodations, like canes or wheelchairs, are adopted as required, the agency said.

'They don't want to die alone'

Dan Haley — the namesake and founder of Haley House — is well-versed with the prison system.

A community chaplain, he's made it his life's mission to help offenders; he started by offering Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to prisoners in the Peterborough area.

Haley says he's seen how hard it is to grow old behind bars — let alone die there.

Dan Haley, founder of Haley House, says he's made it his life’s mission to help offenders. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"Dying inside, and especially not getting the pain medication.… You have this old man, crawled up like a baby and crying, being in pain. And [he] just looks at me and says, 'You gotta get me out of here.'"

Over the years, while visiting prisons and working with offenders on the outside, Haley saw a need for a place that cares specifically for elderly offenders and those nearing death.

"They just don't get the same treatment — and I understand why. Narcotics? Prison? We get it," Haley said.

But that's where community partners like Haley House come in, he said. The organization understands there's "checks and balances" needed with offenders who are transitioning.

Yeah, they've done terrible things. But they're dying — maybe with a heavy heart.- Dan Haley, founder of Haley House

Haley sees his role as helping palliative offenders get ready to go "home." For him, that means heaven or hell, "which has brought me into having all kinds of different discussion with guys."

For offenders on their deathbeds, he asks what they would say if their victim walked through the door right then.

"And [that question] broke a lot of guys — big, tough guys that cried and turned around and took responsibility for what they've done," he said.

Dan Haley saw a need for a place that specifically supports aging offenders and those nearing death -- so he created one. 15:06

"Yeah, they've done terrible things," Haley said. "But they're dying — maybe with a heavy heart."

As for Strong, he, too, appreciates the power of mercy offered through Haley House.

"Grace is something that we often don't deserve, but which lends itself to us," he said. "It's a pretty nice thing, a bit of dignity."

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