As the Australian population continues to age, the majority of focus on the financial burden of ageing is centered on the residential aged care industry and in-home services.

One forgotten portion of Australia’s elderly who also place a significant strain on taxpayer dollars are those that the majority of the population tend to forget about, and they are the older Australians who are currently imprisoned.

Older people within Australian prisons are defined as inmates over the age of 50.

The reason for such a low biological age to be classified as old, is due to the fact that the rigours of prison life significantly accelerate the ageing process of an individual.

Studies conducted throughout Australia and the US have shown that a prisoner at the age of 50 is generally expected to display the same onset of age-related health concerns as a 60 year old, often resulting in early signs of frailty, dementia and chronic disease.

This acceleration of the ageing process is generally attributed to a combination of an offenders lifestyle prior to incarceration (poor nutrition, substance abuse and lack of medical care) and the understanding that prison environments themselves accelerate the effects of ageing.

While the population of older offenders (50+) is rapidly growing in Australia, the number of prisoners aged 65 years and over has actually increased by a staggering 348% (805 people) over the past 16 years.

The consequences of prison living has a detrimental effect on the physical and mental issues that elderly prisoners may already be dealing with.

And people from this age bracket are also far more likely to experience victimisation at the hands of other prisoners due to their frailty.

The deterioration of both older and elderly prisoners, brings with it problems that the vast majority of Australian prisons are not currently equipped to deal with.

The lack of in-prison aged care resources, forces a number of prisons to bring in outside services to deal with their needs.

And the services required by these older inmates generally come at an inflated cost when compared to aged care services within the broader community.

Research in both Australia and the United States has identified that the cost of accommodating older prisoners is approximately three times greater than it is for their younger counterparts.

And these ever increasing costs are something that Australian taxpayers are currently footing the bill for.

Looking Outside the Box

The financial strain on prisons caused by ageing inmate populations are not exclusive to Australia, similar problems in the United States have some Americans calling for the early parole and release of elderly US prisoners in order to ease the burden on their prison system.

According to research conducted in the US, criminal activity peaks at the age of 17 and begins to decline as a person ages, which means that elderly prisoners are the least likely to commit crimes and re-offend.

The removal of low-risk older prisoners would also see a reduction in overcrowding within US jails, which can have a positive effect on younger and more high-risk inmates to rehabilitate.

Research also indicates that reducing the length of prison sentences for older low-risk prisoners could save the government over $100 million within the first year of being implemented.

What Are The Risks?

While older prisoners in Australia are incarcerated for a variety of different crimes, the Australian judicial system is noticeable lenient on first time elderly offenders or older Australians that commit minor crimes.

This means that a number of older prisoners are either serving long term sentences for major crimes or have been convicted of a committing a significant crime at an older age. Older prisoners also make up the highest percentage of sex offenders.

Releasing these people early would prolong the amount of time and exposure that older prisoners would have with the public, which may increase the risk of former prisoners re-offending.

There are a number of older prisoners who are either unwanted by their own family, or have simply outlived their relatives and would require the same services outside of prison that they require in prison.

This may result in a large portion of the financial burden that would be taken from prisons to then fall to the similarly stretched health, or aged care industry’s.

From a public standpoint it’s not hard to understand why people would have reservations about the early release of convicted prisoners. And that the safety of those within the community is of greater significance than the possibility of financial gain.

But the alternate option does raise some questions regarding the amount of credence that we give to the health and wellbeing of older Australians no matter what their current situation is, and whether aged care services are currently available to everyone or just those deemed worthy.

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