On Growing Old in Prison (Part I)

This article is not meant to be a complaint, nor a suggestion for a panacea, a remedy for how we take care of our senior citizens. It is simply a series of observations on senior life both in and out of prison.

Wandering around a federal prison before my parole, I asked myself, is my future all around me?

They are wheeled to and fro by other inmates; they creak and waddle to and from the cafeteria at mealtimes; they wander in the noonday sun talking to themselves.

They occupy prison hospital lineups in increasing, and heavy, numbers. It’s a silent and terrifying way to go gently into that good night. But as often as not, these older folks are smiling.

As has been observed, old age brings quietude and good behavior, even as the mind drifts away like the tides.

By Colin McGregor

National attitudes towards aging in prison play out in each country’s laws and customs.

In Italy, it is illegal to hold someone in jail after the age of 72 if they had a clean criminal record before their crime, and the crime is non-violent in nature. The law was enacted by Silvio Berlusconi, a prime minister in his 70s whose behavior was somewhat less than legal. There was some self-interest in that particular Italian social advance.

Germany’s parole boards will let prisoners out on compassionate grounds after they pass age 70. Spain leaves the door open for many imprisoned after the age of 60.

But like Belgium and Britain, Canada does not flinch from keeping the old locked up for things they did long, long ago in their lives – in a time they themselves cannot remember.

And across the continent of Europe at least, such parole provisions are tightening up rather than loosening, observes La Fondation Robert Schuman, a French research institute focusing on European affairs.


The Japanese have a term for their large numbers of ignored, marginalized seniors – they are ubasuteyama: literally, “granny dump mountain.” This is in reference to the now disused practice of hauling a burdensome elderly relative to the top of a high mountain and leaving them there. Sometimes, say Japanese historians, the elderly themselves would ask to be abandoned on a mountaintop or deep in the woods, so that they wouldn’t be a burden on their families.

Indeed, a 2019 BBC report asserts that many elderly Japanese who find themselves behind bars got there intentionally – to take advantage of health care, free meals, and a little company.

Michael Newman, an Australian-born demographer with the Tokyo-based research house, Custom Products Research Group says that the “measly” basic state pension in Japan is very hard to live on. And these seniors often don’t want to be a burden on their families.

So they commit what in Canada would be a petty crime, most often shoplifting small items, which is punished severely in Japan.

French version on the Reflet de Société website

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