Ivy Mellor has just come out of jail. She's 71 years old. HESTER LACEY reports on a growing trend
Ivy Mellor is an unlikely-looking jailbird. She looks more like a member of the Townswomen's Guild or some such organisation for ladies of a certain age - or perhaps like someone's grandma, which in fact she is, and a great-grandmother too. At 71, she came out of New Hall women's prison in Yorkshire last month, having served nine months of an 18-month sentence for cheque book fraud.

She would never, she says, have thought she would end up in prison. "I served in the Army in the war, then I was a successful businesswoman. I've never been out of work, never used the system, apart from income support just lately." When the business she ran with her husband began to struggle a few years ago, a friend introduced her to a circle of Nottingham criminals who started her on stolen cheque books. She was caught, and served her first six-month sentence at the age of 67. Then the business failed and their home was repossessed. She was caught a second time and sentenced to 18 months last May.

Ivy was one of very few older women in the prison. Elderly women, not surprisingly, are one of the groups least likely to find themselves in the cells; the most recent figures from the prison service total only 17 female over-sixties, 0.8 per cent of the total of women in prison. Adjusting to being with some of the more rough-and-ready younger prisoners was, says Ivy, hard to cope with. "The aspect I found most distasteful was the language, of the young lasses in particular.I wasn't brought up to use the f-word. That was very difficult because at first I was in a wing where there were young offenders - only one or two older than 50."

She was shocked to find that many of the younger women couldn't read or write - they would ask her to read their letters to them. "They run round the streets and their parents aren't worried that they haven't gone to school." The younger girls, she says, were especially vulnerable to bullying and drugs. "I don't know how they got the drugs in, because there were random tests all the time. Once some of them barricaded themselves into a cell. They had this young girl, quite a nice young girl she was, on top of a wardrobe screaming away."

Some of the experience was frightening. Ivy had a mini-stroke and was in hospital for three days. "I was with girls who'd done a lot of self- harm and one who was an alcoholic. She was seeing things, taking sheets off the bed and throwing them in the shower, stripping naked and laying on our beds. I said that whatever the doctor said the next day I was going back to the wing." And she missed her family - particularly her three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Used to her independence, sharing a room with a younger woman was difficult. Ivy is over retirement age and technically didn't have to share the chores, but she mopped floors and cleaned the staff toilets - "I wanted to work. I didn't want to be behind my door."

She is no fragile old biddy and thus coped better than many of her age group would in prison. But caring for the elderly in jail will be an increasingly important issue, says Anita Dockley of the Howard League for Prison Reform, because of the new "three strikes and you're out" legislation where offenders get a mandatory life sentence for a third major offence. British prisons, she says, don't have the facilities to cope with the elderly. "The majority of the prison population is aged 25-30 and under and is male, and the majority is what the system is geared up to." Anita Dockley has been following the cases of two female lifers in their seventies. "One has had two strokes and can hardly talk. What can the prison service offer them?" Prison service figures already point to rising numbers: in 1987 there were 315 over-60s in prison, but in 1997 that figure had risen to 837.

Jan Elvin, editor of the National Prison Project Journal, part of the American Civil Liberties Union, notes that American state governments which already have "three strikes" or similar laws, are finding the cost of caring for elderly long-term prisoners is astronomical - from an average of $20,000 per year for a younger prisoner to more than $60,000 for an older one. "US prisons will look like geriatric wards," she says.

Ivy Mellor, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild her life outside. Her husband, aged 77, who is in poor health, is living in sheltered accommodation because while she was in prison he couldn't look after himself. Ivy can't bring him back to their house in Rainworth near Nottingham, because while she was in prison it was squatted by drug dealers, who stripped it bare and burned what furniture they couldn't sell, leaving behind a stack of unpaid bills. Ivy, however, keeps a stiff upper lip. "What you can't change in life you have to endure," she says. "Once you've accepted that, you can generally accept whatever life throws at you."