SBS World News Radio: Report shows shortcomings in aged prison care
A new report has found Australian prisons are failing to meet the needs of elderly prisoners.
And the study, commissioned by The Salvation Army, has found elderly prisoners make up the fastest-growing prison population.
At what age is a prisoner classified as aged?
The latest research suggests it is just 50 years old, or, for the Indigenous prison population, even younger, at just 45.
Lead researcher Professor Bruce Stevens, of Charles Sturt University, says older prisoners are more vulnerable to poorer health outcomes in jail.
"Many of the prisons in Australia were built in the 19th century for, what, 20-30-year-olds, and, nowadays, there are a lot of aged prisoners. For example, some aged women doing social-security fraud, the royal commission catching up with child-sex offenders is putting them behind bars ..."
And the release of his research -- entitled Old behind bars: What is being done for the incarcerated? -- has renewed calls for a major overhaul in the country's prison environment.
The Australian Association of Gerontology says the research is evidence the prison system is not designed to cater for aged prisoners currently in the system or entering it later in life.
Professor Stevens says it is a vicious cycle for elderly prisoners.
"That whole problem of prison environment is not really well-catering for aged prisoners, so it becomes what's been called a 'double punishment.' The aged prisoners are vulnerable. Sometimes they're getting frail, remember, getting dementia at earlier ages, so they face victimisation because of their mobility."
He says older offenders in Australia have unique vulnerabilities that are not being addressed in mainstream prisons.
"Healthcare's a problem. I mean, it's going to be an increasing demand on the health-care system. There are some specialists, including podiatrists, physios, psychiatrists and geriatricians, but, again, we don't know, the demand on them is probably far more than they can actually meet. There are mental-health needs. The average prison population has 2.5 times the number of diagnoses of the general population."
And Professor Stevens says the problems do not end there.
"If you've got someone in a wheelchair, often they're facing steps just to get to the yard. Ramps aren't usually built. Wheelchair access is a problem -- narrow corridors."
He says there is also a lack of appropriate programs in prison, with most focused on being physically active and able-bodied.
Professor Stevens says there are examples of better practice but, for the most part, Australia lags behind in catering to the challenges aged prisoners present to the prison system.
"If you look across the world, there are nursing homes behind bars, there are specialised units, there are examples of palliative care, special programs, being given to prisoners. But, overall, this is an under-resourced area."
The research has found other examples include placing prisoners with mobility issues in ground-floor rooms, colour-contrasting signs and better lighting.
As well, there is longer time allowed to access toilets and bathrooms.
And he says it is not a challenge that is going to get easier, with the number of aged prisoners on the rise.
"In 2015, our last year, there's 4,424 prisoners in Australia, of which 282 are female. But the females have tripled over years 2000 to 2010. So even though they're a small group, they're, in fact, escalating."
Professor Stevens says the impact that incarceration has on elderly people is a research area greatly under-resourced.
He says it needs more time and money invested to help guide policy.
The Salvation Army was not available for comment.