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Punished for Aging: Vulnerability, Rights, and Access to Justice in Canadian Penitentiaries

By Adelina Iftene
Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2019. pp 144.

Prisons “were never intended to be nursing homes, hospices, or long-term care facilities” (OCI, 2019). Yet, elderly people—in the prison context defined as those 50 years of age and older—currently make up 25% of the overall federal prisoner population (OCI, 2019).[i] In some places, such as Pittsburgh Institution,[ii] A minimum-security prison in Joyceville, Ontario, the proportion is even higher with elderly individuals accounting for 70% of the inmate population (Iftene, 2019, p. 5). For some time now, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) has voiced concern regarding the growing concentration and treatment of aging prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries. Adelina Iftene’s socio-legal examination of aging men in federal custody is a timely, policy-relevant study that will engage legal scholars and prison sociologists alike. Her book is a humanizing account of the unique pains and harms experienced by older prisoners and offers thoughtful recommendations for legal and practical reform geared at reducing the overall number of aging people in prison and making life for the ill and elderly, within the strictures of carceral settings, less painful and a little more humane.

The book makes two main contributions: it documents the sobering realities of confinement for aging prisoners, and it proposes an extensive set of reforms meant “as a starting point for creating an age-sensitive correctional environment, as well as an inclusive legal system […]” (p. 8). To do this, Iftene secured access to seven male federal prisons (of different security levels) in Ontario, where she interviewed 197 prisoners—an ambitious number, especially considering the barriers researchers have faced in gaining access to prison institutions. Iftene was able to elicit in-depth responses from her interviewees about a range of highly sensitive and deeply personal issues. Grounded in rich empirical data, Iftene draws our attention to the everyday indignities experienced by elderly and ill prisoners in the form of both corporal and symbolic punishments. The book provides compelling evidence to show that prisons are fundamentally the wrong institutions to be caring for people who are old, sick, or nearing the end of life. 

Punished for Aging is exemplary in the ways it links discussions of prison law with an in-depth investigation of the experiences of incarceration. It starts with an overview, in Chapter 1, of the Canadian federal prison landscape, including the legal framework, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) and the Correctional and Conditional Release Regulations (CCRR), regulating prison life. This chapter offers both a useful summary for scholars already familiar with the Canadian prison context, as well as a concise introduction to those new to the field of prison studies or unfamiliar with the Canadian landscape.

With this context established, the empirical data is presented primarily in Chapter 2. Iftene offers a rich account of the lived realities of elderly people behind bars, showing the many ways in which imprisonment is particularly challenging, painful, and stigmatizing for the elderly and sick. The stories of two interviewees—John, a man in his 50s who, by the time of interview, had spent more than two decades of his life in prison, and Eric who was first incarcerated in his 70s—are told at different points throughout the book to exemplify two distinct experiences of aging in prison. John is illustrative of people who have grown old in prison, while Eric speaks to the experience of those entering the prison system at an already more frail and vulnerable age. Regardless of their level of institutionalization and history, both their stories, along with the narratives of other interviewees, give a depressing and upsetting picture of the conditions of confinement for elderly and sick prisoners. The injustices described by these men, at times, are difficult to read; from interviewees recounting stories of them being shackled, in pain, and transported back to the prison shortly after undergoing surgery, to elderly prisoners managing and trying to hide their incontinence from other inmates. Discomfort and suffering stemming from sickness is a familiar feeling to many; reading these men’s narratives can only imagine the hardship of being caged while experiencing pain and sickness. Iftene reports that prison health care is rife with problems—a shortage of medical devices and supplies, lengthy wait times for medical check-ups, ineffective pain management; poor and inappropriate diets; and a lack of mental health care, to name a few. Indeed, the fear of getting sick or dying in prison was pervasive among Iftene’s interviewees.

Chapter 2 is of particular relevance to those studying the micro-dynamics of prison life. Interviewees’ narratives raise several questions. For example, how does the experience of seeing death and dying regularly shape prisoners’ relationship with each other? More tangentially, Punished for Aging also makes a contribution to research on prisoner reentry and health—an area that to date has received fairly little attention, both in Canada and the U.S.—and provides reentry scholars with ample questions and issues to consider in future research, such as the unique challenges and pains for ill and elderly individuals upon release.

The book is remarkable for its clear and thoughtful set of recommendations for reform. Rather than an afterthought in the conclusion, Iftene makes reform a centrepiece of the book; in so doing, she manages to keep the voices and experiences of her interviewees central. Iftene’s main argument is “that extensive prison reform and avenues for release for the aging need to be developed” (p. 32). Her recommendations are extensive and described in important detail; they include changes to the parole system (specifically, compassionate release procedures); improvements to current conditions of confinement (e.g., creating senior-only units); greater prison oversight; and more transparent and accessible grievance procedures for prisoners, including better access to the court system. The general organization of Chapters 3 to 6, starting with an analysis of the current problems and shortcomings followed by the question where to?, where Iftene explores avenues for change—provides a clear, well-structured analysis of what the issues are and ways to move forward. Iftene thoughtfully demonstrates the layers and complexity of the gross failures of the prison system, drawing attention to policies and regulations that are punitive, as well as ones that are more benevolent but in practice do not work to provide relief due to bureaucratic and other hurdles. One of the most remarkable examples is perhaps section 121 of the CCRA, which codifies a release option on compassionate grounds. Iftene shows how section 121 is currently “a useless provisions” that “does not create true compassionate release opportunities” (p. 107), partially because prisoners are not even aware or made aware of this option. Iftene then proceeds with a list of clear recommendations for improvement of the current system and regulations that hold the promise of creating a more dignified way of dealing with elderly and sick prisoners. The book and, in particular, her recommendation for reform are a must-read not only for academics, but also for practitioners, policymakers, legal actors, and prison administrators.

Conclusion

Punished for Aging offers a depressing account of the current state of Canadian prisons, yet it is hopeful insofar as Iftene’s clear and practical recommendations for reform offer guidance on what steps could be taken to deal with older prisoners in a different, more dignified and respectful way.  The book is a key resource for anyone studying imprisonment and prison law generally as well as for those more specifically interested in aging and health in prison, accountability, and prison oversight. Chapters 1 and 2, in particular would be well suited for an undergraduate class on prisons or punishment. At the same time, upper-year, graduate, or law students of socio-legal courses would benefit from discussing the book as a whole. Overall, Punished for Aging is an exemplary piece of work that will engage prison law and sociologists alike and might even help create new synergies between punishment and criminal law scholars. The book is of profound significance to scholarship and practice, in Canadian and beyond.

KATHARINA MAIER
UNIVERSITY OF WINNIPEG


[i] Federal prisoners house individuals serving a prison sentence of 2 years or more.

[ii] The institution is now called Joyceville Minimum Security Institution but was called Pittsburgh when Iftene did her research.


References

Ivan Zinger and Marie-Claude Landry. Aging and Dying in Prison: An Investigation into the Experiences of Older Individuals in Federal Custody. Office of the Correctional Investigator and the Canadian Human Rights Commission. [2020] Available at: https://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/oth-aut/oth-aut20190228-eng.aspx (last accessed: June 10, 2020).

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