By Heather Pope
“My recommendation is build more prisons, not more half way houses,” said one commenter. Another wrote, “How lame! The government didn’t create the problem, the criminal did! If they didn’t murder and sexually assault people they would not be in this situation. KARMA!” And a third concluded, “I really couldn't care less if they ended up in a snow bank eating dog food.”
These statements are from the comment section of a recent CBC Out in the Open episode on aging ex-inmates living at Haley House, a 10-bedroom transition home in Peterborough, Ont., for elderly and palliative federal offenders on parole. Open for two years, the house is mainly funded by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and run by the non-profit Peterborough Reintegration Services.
The reactions are natural. It is difficult to have compassion for murderers and sex offenders.
The men inside Haley House have done bad things, some terrible. Forty-three years ago, current resident Cliff Strong was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was paroled, but after sexually assaulting two girls, he was thrown back in jail. Today, at age 75, Strong has Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, swollen legs and a bad hip. He uses a motorized wheelchair.
Strong is part of the growing cohort of aging offenders. In 2011, Canada’s Correctional Investigator reported that over the past decade, the number of older federal offenders has increased by more than 50 percent. Today, 1 in 4 federal inmates are aged 50 or older. Some have committed heinous crimes, including our most serious offence, murder.
“Grace is something that we often don’t deserve, but which lends itself to us,” Strong told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.
But such grace isn’t easy to find. Finding appropriate housing for those who have committed unforgiveable crimes is hard, especially when they have complex health conditions. Partly in response to this challenge, the Dementia Justice Society of Canada is researching the housing vulnerability of a specific group of criminal defendants: those with dementia. Our project, which is funded by The Law Foundation of British Columbia, aims to offer housing solutions that balance humanity with public safety.
Although rare, for some dementia patients, violence is an unfortunate by-product of the disease. These behaviours, combined with a criminal history, can leave elderly offenders with dementia with nowhere to live. Some nursing homes have shown a reluctance to house seniors who’ve been involved with the criminal justice system—no matter the severity of their crime. Many shelters don’t have the capacity to care for an old, sick and mentally impaired man. And while the CSC is making improvements in dementia and end-of-life care for older persons in custody, prison remains an unsuitable and potentially dangerous environment for offenders with dementia.
Homes such as Haley House are part of the solution. But there are few places like it. “[Haley House] is basically one of only two that I'm aware of [across Canada] that caters to this inmate population. And, to me, it represents the future of corrections,” said Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator.
When another halfway house can no longer manage an elderly offender’s declining health, places like Haley House may be able to take him in. But when there’s no vacancies, the person may be sent back to prison, or end up on the street.
“There is no plan B,” said Jeff Morgan, a veteran police officer who works at Haley House. “They’ve earned the right to come out [of prison], yet society just wants to put them away somewhere.”
We must resist that impulse. It makes the world worse. In a free and liberal society like Canada, no human should be left in a ditch to eat dog food. Justice must be tempered with mercy.
Solutions like Haley House transcend the understandable outrage toward criminals who are released into the community. They do not mistake sentimentality for humanity.
Heather Pope is director of the Dementia Justice Society of Canada.