Lack of strategy for senior prisoners raises human rights issues: advocates

More help needed for aging inmates: advocates

VANCOUVER — Convicted killer Francis McLaughlin was a free man for more than 25 years before the parole board noticed a change in his behaviour and sent him back to prison, where he died about 10 months later.

McLaughlin was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in 1978 for the shooting death of a woman described in parole board documents as an acquaintance following “a night of drinking.” He was granted full parole in 1989.

The documents say his freedom was revoked when he became “cantankerous,” and failed to show up for meetings with his parole supervisor.

McLaughlin, the documents say, had dementia.

While the circumstances of McLaughlin’s case are unusual, an advocate for people in the criminal justice system calls his case “unbelievable” and says it shows that Correctional Service Canada needs to find a better way to address the needs of aging inmates.

“The prison system is not adequately designed to deal with many of the issues aging prisoners face, both the cognitive impairments of age and the physical impairments,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.

Latimer said her group is seeing an increase in inmates and recently released offenders who have age-related health and mental health problems.

“If people are sufficiently senile that they can’t remember the nature of their crime, what’s the point in continuing to punish them for it?” she asked.

Parole officers reported McLaughlin’s behaviour had become unpredictable, but they recognized the reasons were beyond his control, says the parole board decision, dated Feb. 18, 2016.  

It says his case management team could not find a care facility for McLaughlin in the community.

He was taken to a prison in Abbotsford, B.C., where he died in November at 79 years old.

McLaughlin didn’t understand why he was being sent back to prison, says the decision, which adds there had been no indication of any criminal behaviour since he was granted full parole.

“You told the board that you don’t really know why you are here today,” it says. “You explained that you felt that you were being unfairly punished for going to see your brother.”

He didn’t know he was supposed to tell anyone that he was going to see his brother or ask for permission, the documents say.

McLaughlin appealed the termination of his parole, but the board’s appeal division affirmed the decision last July.

It tells McLaughlin in its written decision that “since your return to the institution you have been known to react in a threatening manner. Considering these elements, and that your index offence was violent and resulted in the death of your victim, it was not unreasonable for the board to be concerned with the risk to public safety.” 

McLaughlin’s cause of death hasn’t been disclosed. His family couldn’t be reached for comment.

The 2014-15 annual report from the office of the Correctional Investigator singles out the problem of an aging prison population, saying one in four federal inmates are 50 or older. The report says the number of aging or older people behind bars has risen dramatically, increasing by nearly one-third in the five years before the report was issued.

While those offenders usually pose less risk, they have greater health needs and the report says prisons are increasingly under strain to perform as hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities.

The correctional service said in a statement that the needs of older offenders are met through the creation of individual plans.

“CSC acknowledges that challenges exist in addressing the multiple needs of aging offenders, but remains committed in its efforts to continue to develop strategies in meeting those needs,” the statement said.

The department classifies those over 50 as an older offender because studies have shown the lifestyle and environmental factors of inmates accelerate the aging process by about 10 years.

Corrections statistics show there were 6,675 older offenders in the 2015-16 fiscal year, including people living in federal facilities and those who were in the community under supervision.

The data shows 22.2 per cent of all offenders were between the ages of 50 and 64 last year, while 6.9 per cent were 65 or older.

In many cases, it doesn’t make sense to keep seniors in prisons, said Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator. Zinger became the ombudsman for federal offenders on Jan. 1 after working for the office for more than a decade. .

His role is to investigate individual complaints, but Zinger is also responsible for reviewing and recommending changes to the correctional services on systemic areas of concern.

Many older offenders report suffering from a range of health issues, including pain, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, which are all expensive for prisons to care for, and studies have shown senior inmates pose very little risk to public safety, he said.

“Penitentiaries shouldn’t become hospices, especially when it’s the most expensive age cohort to incarcerate while posing the least risk to public safety,” Zinger said.

“It’s costly, there’s no public safety benefits and it raises issues of human rights for many.”

Zinger said his office routinely receives complaints from aging offenders who say they don’t have the access they need to specialists, medical devices or diets.

Corrections said in a statement that considerations are made for the physical requirements of older and aging offenders, including step-stools, wheelchair access and cells that can safely accommodate oxygen bottles and equipment.

A facility like a nursing home run by Corrections would be a more suitable environment for aging inmates with physical or mental health issues, Zinger said, adding that more people should be allowed to leave prison under compassionate release.

Corrections said in a statement that “offenders with a life-threatening, non-curable illness” can apply for early compassionate release.

But Zinger said few releases are granted, and more needs to be done to get terminally ill prisoners out of institutions.

“These individuals should be released in the community and offered an opportunity to die peacefully in the community,” he said.

The correctional investigators office has been urging Corrections Canada for over a decade to create a strategy on older offenders, and the department accepted the recommendation last year.

Corrections said in a statement that development of the strategy will be completed in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

It’s unfortunate the response has taken so long, Zinger said.

“When I started here (11 years ago), I had lots of hair and no grey hair. And I think by the time we see a program implemented, I’ll have lost my hair and whatever hair I have left will be completely white,” he said.

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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