In many countries, the proportion of older persons in prison is rising. Their needs are mostly overlooked, leading to their human rights, including the right to dignity, being violated. Detaining older people is very often unnecessary, inappropriate and not cost effective.
There are varying reasons for ageing prison populations across different countries. In Japan, the older population are reported to commit crimes in a context of poverty and social isolation. In contrast, in the United States, ageing populations are driven by punitive sentencing laws with mandatory minimum sentences initiated in the 1980s. The increase in the number of life sentences means more people remain detained at the end of their lives as part of very long sentences. This heightens the importance of considering the needs of older persons not only in prisons but in criminal justice systems as a whole.
Traditionally, those over 50 are categorised as older persons in prison due in part to ‘accelerated ageing’ in prisons. Older persons are a diverse and complex population in criminal justice system, requiring specific responses addressing health, end-of-life and hospice care and questions of release. Prisons are designed for younger and able people, from infrastructure to rehabilitation activities, leaving older persons with challenges in meeting their basic needs and prevented from prison activities.