Blog Conversation Partners

Old and behind bars

In response to research on services to the aged in prison, a talk-back radio interviewer asked me, “Why should we care about old prisoners? Why be soft on them?” I understood his listeners might not want to waste compassion on aged sex offenders or murderers, however, what kind of society do we want to live in? An important indication of a humane society is how we treat the vulnerable in our midst. It is hard to think of anyone more vulnerable than an aged person in jail.

Those in prison have often abused alcohol and/or drugs, smoke, have poor diet, and don’t seek treatment for medical issues. Their bodies are older than their years and at risk of early onset frailty, dementia and chronic conditions. Prison environments are built with younger offenders in mind, and so navigating stairs while using a walking stick or frame is problematic, especially if these might be considered potential weapons.

There are examples of good practice responding to the needs of this group. Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre modified facilities to include ramps and wider corridors. The Kevin Waller Unit at Long Bay is an example of an integrated aged care unit. There is the Marlborough Unit at Port Philip Prison for intellectual disability. Also, there are specialists who assist the incarcerated including optometry, podiatry, psychology, forensic psychiatry and geriatric physicians – but generally demand is greater than supply of services.

There is an urgent need to resource research, initiate pilot programs, evaluate and change practice in line with evidence-based research. However, the real barrier is who cares? Arguably we don’t.

Dr Bruce A Stevens, Clinical Psychologist, Wicking Chair of Ageing and Practical Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra.

Acknowledgement: The literature review informing this piece was sponsored by Aged Care Plus (Salvation Army) and the work was done by Ms Rebecca Alexander, research assistant.

To Read Further:

AIC. (2007). Older Australians in prison (press release). Retrieved from

NSWJustice. (2015). Old and inside: Managing offenders in custody. Sydney: Department of Justice.