Irish Penal Reform Trust

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) 'Ageing and Detention'

14th June 2018

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has published a booklet entitled 'Ageing and Detention', which seeks to draw attention to the needs of older detainees, to signal useful resources and to help improve conditions for older prisoners. Key points from the booklet are summarised below:

  • In many countries, the prison population is ageing. States have an obligation to address the particular needs of older people in detention.
  • Due to the fact that detainees tend to display age-related biological changes earlier than people living in the community, some prison authorities have lowered the threshold at which a detainee will be considered ‘old’.
  • Older detainees can generally be divided into four groups, each with particular needs and characteristics:
  1. People arrested later in life and serving long sentences
  2. People imprisoned at a younger age and serving lengthy or life sentences
  3. People who have been in and out of prison on shorter sentences for much of their life
  4. Older prisoners serving short sentences
  • Aside from chronological age, other determinants of ageing include biological age, psychological age, functional age, and social age.
  • There is no basis in human rights law to prevent older people being held in criminal detention, provided that the measure is proportionate to the severity of the offence, and the person’s dignity is respected. If it is deemed that detention is no longer appropriate for an older detainee, action must be taken quickly.
  • In many countries, the law means that a significant number of detainees will die in detention. It is important to ask whether allowing someone to die in detention is compatible with respect for human dignity.
  • Older detainees also tend to be more susceptible to many debilitating health conditions, and to experience more complex health issues or ‘geriatric syndromes’. Authorities and staff should be aware of the diversity and complexity of older detainee’s health needs, and respond to appropriately.
  • Facility planners and designers of detention facilities ought to take accessibility for older people into account. Appropriate physical adaptations and changes in management practices should be made to accommodate detainees with disabilities, including impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.
  • When detainees feel unsafe, it can be more difficult for them to access basic services and to perform basic activities. Every step should be taken to ensure older detainees feel safe and secure, especially given that they are more susceptible to exploitation, intimidation and bullying by virtue of their age.
  • Given that the vast majority of older people live in the community rather than in detention, most expert agencies and service providers specialising in dealing with older people also exist outside the criminal justice system. This external expertise should be ‘imported’ by detaining authorities to ensure that the best resources are available to older detainees.
  • When older people are released from detention, officials must, at the very least, help detainees build and maintain supportive relationships in the community, and ensure the older person’s needs continue to be met post-release.
  • Older people enjoy the same rights and are entitled to the same protections under international humanitarian and human rights law as other people deprived of their liberty. However, some international rules and standards relate specifically to older people in detention. These are listed in the booklet.
  • The ICRC recommends that, in order to best guarantee basic dignity for older detainees, States ought to adopt a national strategy framework on the treatment of older people in detention.

Read the full publication here.


IPRT 'In here, time stands still': The Rights, Needs and Experience of Older People in Prison

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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