Concerns over care of rising number of elderly inmates
Analaysis:A marked increase in older prisoners in recent years is creating challenges
The number of older prisoners being held in Irish jails has increased by 70 per cent in the past six years, as gardaí have solved more historical crimes and the judiciary has leaned towards longer sentencing.
The most significant increase has occurred over the past year, when the number of inmates aged 50 or over increased by almost 30 per cent, with some in jail now over 80.
The marked increase in prisoners in the older age bracket has occurred despite the number of committals to prison having remained static in the past year.
Those advocating for prisoners’ rights and improved prison conditions have warned the situation is set to get a lot worse in the short term.
They believe the Irish Prison Service needs to put in place clear policies to meet the often complex needs of older prisoners.
The inspector of prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, has raised his concerns with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, saying the prison service must accept that the needs of elderly prisoners can differ greatly from those of the wider prison population and require a tailored approach.
Incontinence, dementia, blindness and mobility issues are all problems for older prisoners.
Figures obtained by The Irish Times reveal a prison system in which the number of older prisoners is growing faster than the total prison population and where that trend has significantly accelerated of late.
Snapshot data compiled by the Irish Prison Service shows there were 335 prisoners aged 50 or over in jail in the Republic on November 30th last out of a total prison population of 4,298.
The numbers in jail on that day were 16 per cent higher than the same day 12 months earlier, yet the number of inmates aged 50 or more had increased by a more significant 29 per cent.
On November 30th, 2007, there were 199 prisoners aged 50 or older in the Republic. This increased gradually before surging last year to 335 last November.
Of those, 152 are in the 50-55 age group, 73 in the 55-60 age group, 44 are aged 60-65, 42 are aged 65-70, 13 are aged 70-75, nine are 75-80 and two are aged 80 or older.
Executive director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust Liam Herrick said other jurisdictions had seen the same phenomenon in recent years and he was not surprised at recent trends in the Republic.
He cited longer sentences, the prosecution of more historical cases – especially sex abuse cases – and the increased involvement of older people in serious crime such as drugs that may not have been a factor until recent years.
Herrick said that while the Irish Prison Service had recognised the existence of vulnerable groups in the prison population such as young prisoners, women and those who were mentally ill, the reform trust believed older inmates needed to be included in that. “Conditions in a place like Cork Prison are going to affect you much more if you are elderly than if you are a young man.”
He said some older prisoners had mobility problems to the point of being disabled or blind. “There are also issues around dying in jail or releasing people who might be terminally ill. I think the prison service probably acts with compassion but it’s ad hoc rather than having any clear policy.”