International Women’s Day 2020  is on Sunday March 8th and this year WEPHREN is dedicating its themed collection to older women in prison and calls for efforts to create an enabled world for them.

Dr Debolina Chatterjee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development at the J.D. Birla Institute, Kolkata highlights the issues relating to older women in prison in India in her blog below, drawing on work she has done in women’s prisons in India.


Older imprisoned women remain a particularly vulnerable group owing to their marginalization at three levels:

  1. As a result of their incarcerated status and the consequent encounter with a confined life;
  2. Due to the minority status of being an imprisoned woman whose special needs are often overlooked
  3. Most importantly their old age, which creates risks of multiple morbidities and deteriorating health.

There has been recognition of the differences between prison-based functional impairment and functional impairment in the community. Ageing as a process in one’s own familiar setting can cause anxiety and emotional distress; in prison environments, conceived and designed for young men, ageing introduces additional challenges for the elders. It is also argued that those in prison undergo a process of accelerated ageing when any preexisting symptom is vulnerable to further deterioration compared to their age-matched counterparts outside prison. Loneliness and stress in older imprisoned adults is complicated by factors of normal ageing processes of cognitive decline, chronic pain, restricted mobility, lack of assistance in daily activities and fear of emergency health problems. Elders often face difficulty in carrying out routine activities as a result of growing frailty, infirmity and lack of systematic social support. Thus, the issues of disengagement from family members, lack of social skills training and resources for elders in prisons should be taken into consideration while assessing their needs and designing programmes for health promotion and self-care. This would also facilitate the successful transition of elders back into the community.

Another critical aspect of ageing in prisons is death anxiety among those acute illness and in need of end-of-life-care. The United Nations 2009 Handbook for Prisoners with Special Needs lays down rules and procedures for determination, assistance and healthcare for the aged and terminally ill in prison and ways to ensure continuity of care following release.

Research on elders in prison is growing in many countries and the phenomenon of the ‘greying’ of prisons is widespread. In the Indian context, there still remains scope for comprehensive study on the correlation between age and prison experiences, especially that among older women. According to the Prison Statistics India, a total of 466,084 men and women were confined across 1361 prisons in the country in 2018 with 68.5% of the imprisoned population undergoing trial. Women constituted 4.1%. The percentage of those above 50 years of age was 13.4%.

I conducted a study conducted among older women in two prisons of the Indian state of West Bengal and this revealed several challenges. The elderly particularly cited lack of privacy, overcrowding, incessant noise and chaotic environment as negatively affecting their health and sense of well-being. Concern about family members and fear of falling sick were prominent among many. Opportunities for self-care were restricted due to lack of systematic constructive engagement and specific prison policies for elder care. Those who faced a health problem or had restricted mobility, faced greater difficulty in coping.

The study highlighted the need for further research on the specific needs of ageing women in prison and for the compilation of comprehensive data and identification of costs of long-term incarceration of infirm prisoners. Prison systems are characterized by resource and budgetary constraints, so there has to be increasing opportunities for facilitating self-care in day-to-day lives of the imprisoned. There is also need for consideration of age-friendly spatial and architectural layouts and implementation of geriatric training to increase knowledge about challenges of ageing in penal spaces. Planning compassionate prerelease and aftercare rehabilitation is also another key consideration. All interventional paradigms must be underpinned by ideals of gender and age responsiveness for promoting health among older women within the constraints of confinement.

Further reading

Aday & Krabbil, (2013). Older and Geriatric Offender: Critical issues for 21st century in Lior Gideon (edited) Special Needs Offenders in Correctional Institutions, pp. 203-233

Wahidin, A. (2011). Older women in prison: Lessons to be learned from other jurisdictions. Irish Probation Journal, 8, 109-124.

Handbook on Prisoners with special needs (2009) United Nations, pp. 123-154

Chatterjee, D.Chopra Chatterjee, S. and Bhattacharyya, T. (2019), "Exploring self-care abilities among women in prisons of West Bengal, India", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.

Chatterjee, D.Chopra Chatterjee, S. (2017), Food in Captivity: Experiences of Women in Indian Prisons, The Prison Journal, DOI-

More about the author:

Debolina Chatterjee , PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development, J.D. Birla Institute (affiliated to Jadavpur University) in Kolkata, India. She has a particular interest in the health of women in prison.

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