Elderly sex offenders clog Australian jails, but struggle to find housing once released

Elderly sex offenders clog Australian jails, but struggle to find housing once released

Elderly sex offenders clog Australian jails, but struggle to find housing once released

Updated 15 September 2017, 9:25 AEST

Australia's prisons are struggling to deal with increasing numbers of older sexual offenders, and aged care facilities want nothing to do with them when they're released.

In just five years, the number of prisoners over the age of 50 in Australian jails has grown by a third, placing a major strain on the prison system.

The growing number of infirm prisoners is stretching prison resources, and there are no specialised aged care providers for them when they've completed their sentences.

Older inmates present significant additional demands on already limited prison budgets.

Many elderly prisoners present with dementia, have mobility issues and have complex health needs.

Traditional prison architecture is not designed to accommodate them, so prisons across the country are scrambling to adapt, often at huge expense.

Background Briefing gained exclusive access to the new state-of-the-art High Dependency Unit at Yatala Prison in Adelaide.

The $14 million, 26-bed facility accommodates eight elderly prisoners — seven of whom were child sex offenders when Background Briefing visited.

The rooms are furnished with typical aged care supports like shower chairs, toilet risers and handrails.

The manager of the facility, Luke Williams, says many of the prisoners will be housed in the High Dependency Unit for long periods of time.

"It's based on an assessment of their medical needs, and often these are chronic conditions that aren't going to improve," he said.

Older sex offenders a particular problem

The large number of convicted paedophiles in the Yatala High Dependency Unit is not an isolated case — 35 per cent of the prisoners in the over-50 age group are sex offenders.

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began four years ago, more than 2,200 cases have been referred to the authorities.

And with changes to sentencing laws, parole procedures and the lifting of the statute of limitations on historical child sexual offences, it's expected the number of elderly child sex offenders in prison will only continue to climb.

According to Leigh Garrett, the head of Adelaide's Offenders Aid and Rehabilitation Service, the criminal justice system has also got better at prosecuting people who've committed child sex offences.

"The number of reviews and royal commissions that we've had in this state and around the country has also provided opportunities for victims to come forward … in a spirit of safety, [and] tell their story, and that's often led to further prosecutions by police and courts," he said.

What happens when they're released?

Australia does not have specialist aged care providers for people who've committed serious criminal offences, and few private providers are keen to take them on.

That leaves many older prisoners stuck inside long after their earliest release date, which in turn leaves prison hospitals to operate as proxy aged care providers.

In South Australia, there are currently 65 men older than 50 who are still in prison after their expected release date.

It's an expensive way to care for the elderly, and it's pushing prison resources to the limit.

Mr Garrett, whose organisation tries to reduce the likelihood of reoffending, says the only thing worse than elderly sex offenders in aged care homes is elderly sex offenders who aren't in aged care homes.

"I for one am not sure that I want aged sex offenders not able to find adequate care and support in their elderly years," he said.

"Because the potential for them reoffending becomes higher."

Minister says legal changes on the cards

Right now, ex-prisoners are not obliged to disclose their criminal history when making applications to aged care providers.

But Federal Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt believes the families of people in aged care deserve more protection.

"Fear is always a factor because you're always concerned about what might happen to family, but equally we've got an obligation to look at someone who is frail," he told Background Briefing.

Mr Wyatt said while caring for sex offenders and other elderly ex-prisoners might be unpopular, the government has an obligation to look after all vulnerable Australians.

"It's a discussion that I'll be having with my aged care advisory body, but it'll also be a discussion that I'll have in the future with state ministers," he said.

The Aged Care Minister has called for a specialised aged care provider to be set up, to avoid serious ex-prisoners being housed in mainstream aged care.

"We do it for other groups, and we do it for culturally and linguistically diverse groups," he said.

"I see no harm in a provider specialising in looking after people who've had a life in prison."