How to respond to the challenges of the ageing of the convict population?

Why is it important to respond to the challenges of the ageing of the convict population?

The increase in the share of persons over the age of 50 in the total number of convicted persons is noticed worldwide and in Serbia. Having in mind the fact that elderly persons have specific medical, social and psychological needs, as well as the fact that they are at a higher risk of victimisation and multiple discrimination, it becomes obvious that the ageing of the convict population carries several challenges for the criminal sanctions enforcement system. The obligation to respect fundamental human rights guaranteed to all convicted persons becomes even more noticeable when it comes to elderly persons serving a prison sentence because of their particular vulnerability due to their age and the challenges it carries. Therefore, it is important to analyse potential approaches to the adjustments of living conditions in prisons to the medical, psychological and social needs of elderly convicted persons.

Two approaches to the problem of ageing of persons serving a prison sentence

There are two approaches to the problem of ageing of the population of persons serving prison sentences. The first includes segregation, i.e., the physical separation of elderly persons from other convicts in separate departments of the institutions for the enforcement of criminal sanctions. The second is based upon their inclusion, i.e., a treatment that is completely equal to the treatment of other persons serving a prison sentence, including spending time in the same premises and participating in the same activities. Each of these approaches has its advantages and flaws, which should be studied to estimate which one would be the most suitable for the criminal sanctions enforcement system of the Republic of Serbia.

Segregation – physical separation of the elderly from the rest of the persons serving a prison sentence

This approach is based upon the standpoint that elderly persons serving prison sentences should be separated in a special department to guarantee their physical separation from other convicted persons, or to spend some time in shared premises, but not together with other convicts. This approach does not exclude the construction of special penal institutions designed exclusively for elderly convicts. On the one hand, such an approach would significantly reduce the risk of elderly convicts’ victimisation, primarily by eliminating the possibility of escalation of verbal or physical violence against elderly convicts committed by younger ones. At the same time, this would facilitate that elderly persons spend their time on the premises and participate in activities that are adjusted to their physical, mental and social needs.

On the other hand, one should have in mind that not all elderly convicted persons have the same physical and mental capabilities, that their medical conditions are different, that they have been convicted for various criminal offences, that they carry different safety risks and that their physical and mental needs and capacities cannot be estimated solely on the grounds of their age. In that sense, the approach based upon segregation might lead to situations in which some convicted persons would be isolated without any reasonable cause and deprived of access to shared activities that could positively affect their physical and mental health and wellbeing. This particularly refers to various outdoor activities, such as sports, animal-assisted activities, horticulture and other activities that are beneficial for physical and mental health and emotion. If persons employed in the system for the enforcement of criminal sanctions were open and willing to do so, these activities could be organised separately for elderly convicts, following their needs, capacities and preferences. This is particularly important in the case of elderly convicts suffering from illnesses (such as, for example, dementia or depression) that might not require their placement in a Special prison hospital but certainly involve special treatment.

Photography: Ana Batrićević


Inclusion – staying of the elderly with other convicted persons

Placing elderly convicts together with others has its advantages because it allows them equal treatment and prevents them from feeling discriminated against and isolated. In that context, an inclusive approach might be perceived as a way to make the daily life of elderly convicts more interesting, by allowing them to participate in shared activities, following their capacities and preferences. However, in these situations, the space should be adjusted to the needs of elderly convicts, primarily by making it more compatible with their needs regarding movement and safety. Besides, the supervision should be particularly intensified during the activities in which both elderly and younger convicts participate, to prevent the elderly convicts from being victimised by the younger ones.

Possible solutions to the problem of ageing of convicted persons in Serbian prisons

In the Republic of Serbia, the placement of convicted persons in the institutions for the enforcement of criminal sanctions and their accommodation in different departments (closed, semi-open and open) within these institutions is based upon various criteria. However, the fact that a convicted person is, for example, over 50 or 60 years of age is not explicitly mentioned. When placing a convicted person within an institution, the following facts are taken into consideration: length of punishment; how the person initiated the enforcement of punishment; person’s attitude towards committed criminal offence and imposed punishment; previous conviction; other criminal procedure or imposed punishment, psychological, pedagogical, social characteristics, safety risks and needs of the convicted person; his/her behaviour during previous enforcement of institutional criminal sanction; other relevant circumstances enumerated in the risk assessment questioners, including the age of the convicted person. Within the Serbian criminal sanctions enforcement system, there is no particular institution or department within the existing institutions designed exclusively for elderly persons and adjusted to their specific needs. Constant increase in the number of older convicts and the prognosis that there will be more of them in the future, suggest that the introduction of some of the aforementioned options should be considered – either through a specific institution or as special departments within existing institutions or through comprehensive measures aimed to adjust living and working conditions in existing institutions to the needs of elderly convicts. The adjustment of the conditions in the existing institutions seems to be the least complicated solution since it does not require the alteration of current legal and sub-legal acts but infrastructural, material and human resources investments.


Ana Batrićević and Ivana Stevanović