Older inmate numbers rise

SELINA POWELL
Last updated 10:33 19/02/2014

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More elderly inmates are facing the prospect of spending their last days in New Zealand prisons.

Corrections Department figures show the number of inmates older than 70 has more than tripled in the past decade, from 35 in 2004 to 123 in 2014.

The rise in the number of elderly prisoners outpaces growth in the general prison population (up 34 per cent from 6224 to 8321 during the 10-year period).

Prison reform advocate Kim Workman said longer prison sentences and conservative Parole Board decisions had produced the trend.

He did not think New Zealand's ageing population was a big influence on the numbers as the likelihood of criminal behaviour "almost disappears" by the age of about 70.

"There are very few people of that age group who commit crimes," he said.

Workman said that although some elderly inmates were not physically or mentally capable of offending, a lack of support in the community meant the Parole Board was unwilling to release them.

New Zealand Parole Board chairman Warwick Gendall said the board's main consideration was community safety.

It had to judge whether an inmate posed an undue risk to people's safety.

Justice Gendall said if there was a trend towards prisons holding more elderly offenders, it was because longer sentences were being given for serious crimes, and because some offenders still posed a risk to community safety, despite their age.

Phil McCarthy is the national director of Prison Fellowship New Zealand, a faith-based network of volunteers who help prisoners in the leadup to, and after, their release from prison.

McCarthy said it was very difficult to find suitable release places for elderly sex offenders.

"Often these people, understandably, don't have any other support in the community," he said.

"They've burnt off their friends and family."

Prison Fellowship volunteers are supporting one former inmate who is in his 70s and two in their 60s.

McCarthy said people who had spent a number of years in prison struggled with tasks others took for granted, such as ordering a meal from a takeaway restaurant when they were used to a set prison menu.

"There's this inevitable impact of prison life on your ability to live and make decisions," he said.

A $750,000 high-dependency unit accommodating 20 inmates was opened at the Rimutaka Prison north of Wellington in 2012.

Most of the residents are elderly, although there are some younger men who have suffered strokes.

Health care staff are on hand to help with toileting, feeding and bathing.

The Department of Corrections is in the process of extending the unit to provide for a further 10 prisoners.

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It is the only unit of its kind in the country - at other prisons, elderly inmates are placed according to their security classification.

Prison chaplain Richard Clement has worked in the unit since it opened in 2012 and answers any spiritual questions the men might have.

Clement said the unit was a great initiative and provided for the dignity of the human being as well as a high standard of care.

The men in the unit often had a greater interest in questions of faith than younger prisoners, Clement said.

"With the age of the people I'm dealing with their life view is different to younger people," he said.

"They're getting more resigned to the fact that they are in the twilight of their journey.

"To be honest, I don't think most of the guys have a desire to die in prison, but there's an acceptance that that's a possibility."

Some prisoners who had no friends or family outside of prison worried about who would arrange for their burial and attend their funeral.

"I try to give them some reassurance that someone will be there even if it's me," he said.

Clement once spent two days walking in the Akatarawa ranges in search of a final resting place for an inmate.

Last year the Department of Corrections organised for the burial of two prisoners at Whanganui and Waikeria prisons after their bodies were not collected by next of kin.

There were 13 deaths in New Zealand prisons in 2013.

- Upper Hutt Leader

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