Poland: HFHR helps 80-year-old prisoner in European court case

Prison populations are ageing but facilities and care are not keeping up with the change. HFHR has submitted an amicus curiae brief to the ECtHR in the case of an 80 year-old woman who claimed her rights were violated while in detention.

80-year-old woman held in pre-trail detention for two years

The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) has submitted an amicus curiae brief to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on a case brought by an 80-year-old woman who was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years. The applicant complained that her detention, which was in a facility not adapted to the needs of the elderly, had led to a violation of Article 3 of the Convention, namely the prohibition of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment. She also argued that the period of her detention was excessive, which amounted to a violation of Article 5 § 3 ECHR. In the brief, HFHR pointed to the special characteristics of elderly detainees as a group. It also presented statistics on the prison population and referenced domestic and international recommendations.

According to official statistics, in 2018 there were 2,934 inmates aged over 61 in all types of Polish prisons, which was an increase of 1,431 on 2008. Also, in 2018, 4.1% of prisoners were 61 or older, which is 2.34 percentage points more than in 2008.

Older detainees have many special needs

Older people who are incarcerated may have special health needs related to reduced mobility, dementia or mental health, among other things. Senior inmates often require extra specialist care and more frequent health checks. Many of the limitations older prisoners face stem from the institutions they are held in not be equipped to meet the needs of elderly inmates. The Foundation receives complaints highlighting inadequate medical care and living conditions. Adequate penitentiary interventions, as well as the need to define contraindications for imposing sentences or preventive measures on elderly defendants are also concerns.

In its brief HFHR argued that the case is of considerable importance to Poland and other countries as it may lead to the development of standards of detention and imprisonment of elderly inmates. The organisation drew attention to Polish demographic statistics that show the structure of the prison population over the last decade, with both the 60+ and 80+ age groups growing considerably. It also emphasised that despite a decrease in the number of prisoners, the number of over 60s in the system remained on the rise. Other EU countries show that special facilities can improve the lives of elderly inmates

HFHR’s brief focused on confronting the Polish legal regulations on detention with international recommendations on specific conditions that the state should guarantee for senior citizens held in penitentiary facilities. The opinion presents examples of penitentiary policies for older persons introduced elsewhere in Europe. For example, in the German prison system there are special wards for inmates in need of geriatric treatment. Greece offers various facilities for elderly people, including an alternative system of serving sentences and for calculating detention periods. Serbia has special rules on the detention of older persons, which must be implemented with due consideration for their health, location of the detention facility, diet, activities and social protection upon leaving prison. In Poland, however, there are no detailed regulations or guidelines defining the conditions of detention of persons over 67 years of age in prisons and remand centres.

HFHR also pointed out that in the light of international norms and standards (in particular, those developed as soft laws), older persons belong to the category of prisoners with special needs. This means that state authorities should take additional protective measures to prevent the ill-treatment of elderly inmates.

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