Ageing of prison population in the Republic of Serbia – Key challenges

Ageing of prison population in Serbia and worldwide

Ageing of population is a global phenomenon, affecting all aspects of life and the welfare of all generations. Serbia has one of the oldest populations, with average age of 42,2 years and 17,4% of its population is more than 65 years old. In the past decades, the ageing of convicted persons’ population has been documented in many countries, including Serbia, without any relation to the ageing of general population.

Official statistics show that the share of persons over the age of 50 in the total number of convicted adults (i.e., persons on whom various criminal sanctions have been imposed) is constantly increasing in Serbia. For example, in 1999 their share in the total number of convicted adults was 14,73%, in 2006 it was 18,77%, in 2015 it was 19,11%, whereas in 2020 it was 20,2%. Nevertheless, it should be underlined that the available data refer to all convicted adults (including for example the persons on whom fine or conditional sentence have been imposed) and not only to those sentenced to prison.

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Graph 1. The share of the number of convicted persons over the age of 50 in the total number of adult convicted persons in Serbia from 1999 until 2020

Potential causes of the ageing of the population of convicted persons include: long-term and life sentences, more frequent commission of criminal offences by older perpetrators and recidivism. There is also an increase in the number of older female convicted persons, which in accordance with the worldwide increase in the number of female convicted persons.

Ageing of the population of convicted persons – challenges during the execution of prison sentence

Elderly persons face a series of health issues, due to which they are in need of: frequent medical examinations, medicines and medical devices, orthopedic devices as well as of the assistance with daily activities such as: feeding, personal hygiene maintenance and mobility. Meeting these needs of elderly convicted persons demands additional financial resources.

Due to long term dwelling in prison, older convicted persons often lose the contact with their family members and friends. They often lack the will and capacities to participate in the same activities with younger prisoners. Older convicted persons are under a higher risk of discrimination and marginalization – due to their age and due to the fact that they are convicted. The fact that older convicted persons are exposed to higher risk of becoming the victims of the younger ones represents a security challenge as well.

The majority of working activities in the institutions for the enforcement of criminal sanctions are not entirely adapted to the capacities of elderly convicts. Working engagement of convicted persons is most commonly fulfilled on agricultural properties, in workshops, in production facilities, through the maintenance of the hygiene in the prison etc. and requires a certain level of physical strength and condition. Older convicted persons are usually not able to participate in these activities due to their health and overall physical condition.

It can also be noticed that the treatment programs are not adjusted to the needs, capabilities and interests of the elderly. Older convicts often lack the motivation to participate in these programs, especially if they are aimed at acquiring new knowledges and skills in order to facilitate the employment of convicted persons. The reason for that is the fact that, due to their age, they are usually not planning to apply for a job after serving the sentence.

The infrastructure and the accommodation capacities of the institutions for the execution of criminal sentences are not adjusted to the needs of the elderly. There is a lack in the number of prison staff that would take care of them and they cannot be provided with: constant supervision of medical workers, continuous assistance with everyday activities or adequate psychological support. Moreover, the sensitivity of prison staff to the needs of older convicted persons can also be questioned.

Ageing of the prison population – challenges following the release

After serving the sentence, former convicts tend to face a series of challenges, including: difficulty to find accommodation, obstacles when it comes to employment (legal source of income) and discrimination within the community. Older former convicts face challenges due to the lack of capability to work as well as because of double discrimination – on the grounds of their age and the fact that they have been sentenced.

The importance of adequate response to the challenges of the increase in the population of older convicted persons

Human rights of convicted persons are guaranteed by national and international legislative framework. The improvement of living conditions in penitentiary institutions and the adjustment of their accommodation capacities to the number and needs of convicted persons are included in the recommendations of the European Commission in annual progress reports for Serbia.

Older convicted persons are under greater risk of multi-layered discrimination and marginalization, especially during the enforcement of prison sentence. The risk increases if they are not familiar with the mechanism of protection from discriminatory acts and if the persons who work in penitentiary institutions are not aware of their needs and the risks they are exposed to.

The respect of human rights of older prisoners and their treatment in accordance with their needs are the preconditions for the fulfillment of the purpose of criminal sentences in the sense of resocialization and the prevention of recidivism (in the cases where life sentence has not been imposed and when the convicted person is expected to leave the institution after serving the sentence or after conditional release).

That is the reason why it is important to provide adequate resources for the fulfillment of the needs of elderly convicted persons in the context of accommodation and the engagement of the persons who would take care of them during the execution of prison sentence. Besides, obligatory education of prison staff about the specific characteristics and needs of elderly population should be introduced, along with the expansion of treatment programs so that they can include the activities that are suitable for older persons as well.

Ivana Stevanović and Ana Batrićević