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  • Kelly Kennedy (Robson Crim Extern)

Innovative Strategies for Aging Offenders

While the representation of offenders is typically skewed to younger inmates, there is a significant proportion of elderly offenders currently being supervised within both the provincial and federal correctional system. The proportion of aging offenders in custody has skyrocketed over the last few decades, “making middle-aged and elderly offenders, one of the fastest-growing demographics” in prison. [1] The phenomenon known as the “grey wave” [2] was first identified in 1999, which consists of "older" inmates who are 50 years of age and older.”[3] In the late 1999’s, the Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) reported that aging offenders in federal institutions was at an all time high, consisting of 15% of the prisoner population.”[4] Since that time, the number has risen substantially and today the proportion of aging offenders is estimated to be “one-quarter, or 25% of the prison population; a growth rate of 77%.”[5] The “grey wave” does not seem to be abating. “Projections based on population modeling suggest that in the next five years, the greatest growth is expected for non-Aboriginal men aged 50 to 64.”[6]

What is Driving this Trend?

Howard Sapers, former Federal Correctional Investigator of Canada, believes that “significant shifts in sentencing reforms”[7] is a contributing factor increasing the proportion of aging offenders in prison. In addition, tough on crime policies and legislative reforms have also been contributing to the “grey wave” phenomenon. Due to governments reforms and western ideals, prisoners are “serving longer sentences and receiving significantly fewer opportunities for parole as a result of mandatory minimum penalties.” [8] In addition, the Correctional Investigator of Canada has also suggested that the “tightening of parole eligibility criteria and expansion of indeterminate sentencing designations” has also been a main contributor to the “grey wave.” [9] On one hand, the Office of the Correctional Investigator reports that “older offenders are more likely than younger offenders to have been convicted of more serious violent offences.”[10] There is a public interest in keeping violent offenders in prison longer. [11] On the flipside, it is also well documented that in most cases, aging offenders “present a lower risk to the community” due to their age. [12]

A Cause for Concern

The needs of aging offenders are very different from their younger inmate counterparts. The importance of understanding these unique needs and distinct barriers should be a high priority for both federal and provincial correctional directives across the country. The Correctional Investigator of Canada explains that, “health is generally poorer behind bars.” [13] The Correctional Services of Canada explains that in mainstream society, “older” is about 60 or 65-years-old but this is not the case for prison populations.” [14]

Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada explains that due to lifestyle differences, “you can basically add a factor of 10 years on chronological age.” [15] The reasons for such a staggering difference “may be exacerbated by substance abuse, poor diet and an unhealthy lifestyle which are often characteristics of offenders.” [16]

The reality is that many older offenders will require “treatment of chronic diseases and illnesses associated with aging including cancer, emphysema, dementia, diabetes, cardiovascular disease” and palliative cancer. [17] In addition to treatment, many aging offenders require adaptive equipment and healthcare providers to accommodate their aging needs.

A Human Rights Issue

It seems that the “grey wave” is not only an issue plaguing Canadians. Campaigners around the globe “have urged that the rise in elderly people detained in prison is causing issues for a prison system totally unsuited to meeting their basic needs.” [18] In addition, the systemic issues plaguing aging offenders have caught the eye of some heavy players in the human rights community. In fact, in 2018 both the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Correctional Investigator launched a joint investigation into the systemic discrimination of aging and elderly offenders in both federal and community corrections. Today in our Canadian prison system, the volume of offenders with significant medical issues has reached a point where “prisons are inaccessible and ill-equipped to manage their health care needs.”

Whats the Solution?

The research indicates that older offenders in the correctional system “experience more chronic health conditions than younger offenders.” [19] Given the current projections regarding the aging offender population, there appears to be a need to develop a long-term initiative to appropriately deal with aging offenders in prison and their eventual release back in to the community. Developing innovative solutions to meet the unique needs of aging offenders must be a top priority for both provincial and federal correctional institutions.

Ivan Zinger explains that penitentiaries should not become hospitals, “especially when it’s the most expensive age cohort to incarcerate while posing the least risk to public safety.” [20] One long-term initiative could be increasing parole reviews for aging offenders. Releasing offenders to Community Correctional Centres may also pose a problem because typically these facilities are not well equipped to accommodate the unique medical needs of aging offenders.

One costly idea is to start “retrofitting institutions with special assistive devices and equipment to meet everyday housing, ambulatory, toileting, bathing and feeding needs of an aging offender population.” [21] The costs associated with construction may not be a practical endeavour for prisons and Community Correctional Services. In addition, the current building structures in prisons and at Community Correctional Centres may not allow for construction projects to accommodate adaptive equipment. A more cost-effective solution maybe to contract with agencies or Community-Based Residential Facilities to meet the needs of aging offenders.

With this volume of offenders with significant medical issues, this should provoke the need for Correctional Services of Canada to explore creative solutions for geriatric initiatives. If policy makers and correctional institutions do not take steps to deal with the complex needs of aging offenders, it could be just a matter of time before the Courts impose their own solutions to insure the basic needs of aging offenders are met.


[1] May Bulman, “Why has the Proportion of Elder Prisoners Risen so Drastically.” (29 November 2017) online: Independent <>.

[2] Zi-Ann Lum, “Grey Wave hitting Canadian Prison, Ombudsman Warn.” (1 November 2011) online: Vancouver Observer <>.

[3] Dr. Armstrong-Esther, “Older Offenders in the Correctional Service of Canada,” online at Correctional Service of Canada <>.

[4] Elizabeth Payne, “Federal Correctional Investigator: Needs of Aging Prisoners not being met” (22 June 2018) online: Ottawa Citizen <>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Beaudette & Stewart, “Older Offenders in the Custody of the Correctional Service of Canada” (2014) <>.

[7] “Canada’s Aging Prison Population – Do we Care?” online: International Federation of Aging <>.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Forum on Corrections Research,” online: Correctional Service Canada <>.

[11] Supra at note 3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lauren Krugel, “Aging Inmates: Correctional Service of Canada has Strategy in the Works,” (26 December 2017) online: The Canadian Press <>.

[14] Supra at note 3.

[15] Supra at note 13.

[16] Supra at note 3.

[17] Summary of Issue and Challenges Facing Older and Aging Offenders in Federal Custody, Office of the Correctional Investigator <>.

[18] Supra note 1.

[19] Older Offender in the Custody of the Correctional Service of Canada (August 2014) online: Correctional Service Canada <>.

[20] Gemma Karstens-Smith, “Canada’s Aging Prison Population calls for Strategy Overhaul, Advocates Say” (25 January 2017) online: The Canadian Press <>.

[21] Supra note 17.

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