There is no global data on the number of older persons in prison. Known rates vary from 1.8% of prison populations in Indonesia to as high as 20% in Japan.
Older people in prison have faced increased hardship and risks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including heightened risk of contracting the virus due to their age and confined living conditions. Data available shows that – like in the community– older persons in prison were more likely to contract COVID-19 and have a higher risk of death. For example, in Ireland, where around 14 per cent of the prison population is of advanced age, 46 per cent of COVID-19 cases recorded in February 2021 were among this age group. In the UK, the COVID-19 infection rate among people aged 60 or over living in prison was 15.5 per 1,000 in September 2020, twice as high than in the general population.
Older persons in prison are also more likely to suffer serious or fatal effects of the virus because of their advanced age and poorer health outcomes compared to people of the same age living in the community and younger people in prison. Research in England suggests up to 90 per cent of older detainees have at least one moderate or severe health condition, and more than half have three or more. A study of COVID-19 risk factors in one US state found that among people in prison, older age is a predictor for a threefold higher risk of death per decade and doubled the risk of hospitalisation per decade.
People aged 50 or 55 in prison are increasingly deemed as ‘older’ due to accelerated ageing in prison (compared to 60 or 65 years old in the community).
Accelerated ageing in prison means that people in prison over the age of 50 are often considered older – compared to 60 or 65 in the community – because of their lower health status and the ageing effect of prison itself. Acknowledging this, the World Health Organisation (WHO), PRI and the UNODC have called for adaptations of national vaccination plans to consider specific conditions for prison settings, without which most ‘true elders in prisons’ will be missed.
Release mechanisms implemented in response to the pandemic explicitly included older people in many countries including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Bolivia, but little disaggregated data is available to show how many were released globally. In the Philippines, of the 21,000 people released from prison in the four months to July 2020, only 409 of more than 3,000 older persons were included. Automatic exclusions of those serving long or life sentences also prevented many older people benefitting from release (see Life imprisonment).
Complete data and comprehensive research on older people in prisons globally remains lacking. National data available continues to show an upward trend in some countries with variances between countries in the proportion of older people in prison populations. People aged over 60 years now make up 20 per cent of the prison population in Japan, double the proportion in 2002. The number of men aged over 55 in Scottish prisons has more than doubled in the past decade to 574, representing 7 per cent of the overall prison population, compared to 3.3 per cent in 2010-11. Older people are the fastest growing group in the prison population in England and Wales; those aged 60 or over has increased by 82 per cent in the last decade and by 243 per cent since 2002. Women in prison aged 60 or over has risen by a dramatic 470 per cent (from 23 to 131) since 2002, despite an 18 per cent reduction in the overall female prison population in this period. As a result, the Government in November 2020 committed to developing a national strategy for older persons in prison. As of February 2021, 11.6 per cent of the US federal prison population is over 60, compared to 5 per cent in Peru in November 2020 and less than 2 per cent in Thailand in December 2020. Older people account for just 1.8 per cent of the prison population in Indonesia (4,653 people) as of January 2021.
Despite the rising number and proportion of older people in prison in many countries, prison staff are rarely sufficiently trained to identify and respond to their particular needs. One approach adopted in some prison systems is to assign a younger detainee to care for an older peer, like in Latvia or Poland, although this has been criticised by the European Court of Human Rights in judgments over the past decade, highlighting the risk of abuse if such care is organised informally.
See a complete list of references in the full report, Global Prison Trends 2021.