Figures provided by Correctional Service Canada peg their number at 2,379 of the 13,286 total inmates in 2009 — a 45 per cent hike from the 1,646 out of 12,663 people locked up in 2002.
The numbers will rise even further if the Conservative government passes its tough-on-crime agenda that aims to lock up convicts for longer periods, says Canada's federal prison ombudsman.
“We will see more people spending more time in prison,” Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, told The Canadian Press.
The trend carries cost implications.
As a result, Correctional Service Canada defines prisoners aged 50 and over as “aging offenders.”
Mr. Sapers notes that some penitentiaries have responded to the aging demographic by retrofitting cells, improving wheelchair accessibility and installing handrails.
“From age 50 on, we begin to see some fairly serious health impacts on the offender population,” said Mr. Sapers, whose office reviews thousands of inmate complaints each year.
He indicates that not only are prisoners at risk of problems like dementia and limited mobility at a younger age, they also live in jailhouses where HIV rates are 10 times higher than in the general population. He said one-third of inmates have hepatitis C.
Mr. Sapers also says the federal government has been slow to react when it comes to separating older, more vulnerable inmates from their younger, rowdier cellblock mates.
“You cannot create a correctional environment at the federal level based on the philosophy of one-size-fits-all — it doesn't work,” he said.
Correctional Service Canada says it doesn't calculate the cost of incarceration by age, but experts insist the price tag of housing older prisoners is steep.
“Certainly,” Pierre Mallet, head of Canada's correctional officers union, answered when asked if cellblock greybeards cost more to house than their younger counterparts.
“It's a legitimate problem.”
The average annual cost of keeping one person locked up jumped 22 per cent — from $83,276 to $101,666 — between 2003-04 and 2007-08, Public Safety Canada says. In other words, the average daily cost rose to $278 per prisoner.
Due to shortages in medical staff at some institutions, guards are sometimes called upon to juggle their security duties with basic caregiving, Mr. Mallet said.
“We deplore the lack of medical resources that they have in establishments,” Mr. Mallet said.
“But at the same time, is the population ready to assume the costs that this could all bring? You know, to have more nurses, to have more doctors, to have more people to help them, there's a cost attached to this.”
Mr. Sapers said an internal review conducted 10 years ago by Correctional Service Canada identified elderly prisoners as a priority.
The department set up a task force to examine needs such as palliative care, reintegration and accommodation, but the group was eventually disbanded.
Still, the federal government is aware of the problem.
“Delivering adequate health
A spokeswoman for Correctional Service Canada said the department evaluates the care given to prisoners based on their individual needs, not by age.
“It's really hard to have a specific old-age offender (program) in place,” said Christelle Chartrand.
“We adapt with the population that we have.”
She said the department takes physical limitations into consideration for housing and penitentiary placement.