Pensioner prisoners: Old lags just got older

The number of over-60s behind bars has jumped 20 per cent in four years: one jail has a specially equipped wing with a stairlift. Paul Bignell investigates

They could be enjoying a spot of gardening or volunteering in a local charity shop. Instead, they are serving time. Figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday show that record numbers of elderly people are being held in prison. Ministry of Justice data reveals a 20 per cent increase since 2008 in the number of over-60s – or "Saga louts" as they have been dubbed – who are behind bars.

The figure has trebled over the past 20 years, and the over-60s are now the fastest-growing age group in prisons in England and Wales. The increase in the number of "old lags" has led to concern about how prisons cater for ageing inmates. Prisons in the UK were mainly built during the 19th century, making the vast majority of them unsuitable for older people, especially those with disabilities.

A new ITV documentary on Thursday evening – Pensioners Behind Bars – highlights the growing problem. In June 2008 there were 2,811 prisoners aged 60 and over in England and Wales. As of September this year, there are 3,333. In Scotland the comparable figure is 177, most of whom were jailed for sexual offences. The oldest man in prison in England and Wales was 92 as of last year and the oldest woman, 78.

A lack of research into this trend, however, means that no one is sure why it is happening. Rather than hordes of delinquent elders embarking on a "grey crime wave", experts believe one of the driving factors is tougher sentencing. The average crown-court custodial sentence has increased by three months to 25.2 months over the past decade, while the prison population has jumped by more than 80,000 in the past four years. There is also less tolerance towards the over-60s from the judiciary, as well as society as a whole.

The first report into the issue, published in 2008 by the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers, criticised the prison service for having "no national strategy for older prisoners" and it added that their needs were "too often not met".

Charities said this weekend that, just as young offenders need special provision within the penal system, so, too, do the over-60s, adding that their needs are not being met. A recent survey by the Prison Governors Association found that most prisons lacked the facilities to cope with growing numbers of elderly inmates and the issues which arose from mixing frail and elderly people with the general prison population.

Kingston prison in Portsmouth was the first prison in the country to provide a specialist elderly wing, equipped with stairlifts and other adaptations. Others are likely to follow, as the elderly prison population grows.

Greg Lewis, programme manager for the charity Age UK, said: "There are a number of factors here. One is the change in social and police attitudes towards older people, particularly with regards to sexual offences, and society is becoming less tolerant in its attitude towards older people. There also appears to be less tolerance in the courts in dealing with older people and a greater readiness to imprison them.

"There is tougher sentencing in general. That's been the trend over the last few years. We're seeing longer sentences for sex offences and there are more mandatory life sentences than there should be," said Mr Lewis.

He added that the increase could also be a result of increased use of DNA technology yielding prosecutions for crimes which might otherwise have remained unsolved. People in their 70s and 80s who committed crimes 30 or 40 years ago, are increasingly likely to receive a knock on the door from the police.

Age UK says it wants to ensure that older prisoners are not being treated any worse than younger prisoners. "There appears to be some evidence of that," said Mr Lewis. "Are older people being discriminated against in prison, simply because they are old?"

The elderly crime wave doesn't appear to be confined to the UK. The Netherlands has undertaken research and found the same sharp increase over the last decade. They found that a large percentage of over-60s appearing in court had undiagnosed dementia.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: "We are committed to ensuring that older prisoners are treated fairly and that aspects of the regime are suitable, available and accessible. Prisons reflect society and, as such, the numbers of older prisoners have increased gradually. Governors are working to ensure suitable facilities are provided and healthcare needs are met, as well as working with charities such as Age UK and Recoop, who focus on resettlement."

Trevor Cairns, 62

Possession of drugs

Father of five Trevor Cairns, 62, a retired builder, is in prison for the first time, serving a year for possessing thousands of pounds' worth of cannabis and black-market cigarettes. He explains the impact of getting a custodial sentence.

"It was a shock to the system. To be told what to do and locked up, and you just can't go out for a walk around – it was horrendous.

"I like a little drink now and again and I like to be able to just get in my car and go out for a ride. They're the sort of things I miss now, and being with my family and having a laugh and a joke at home. It's definitely a sentence, being here. I think I've learned my lesson now."

Roy Dennis, 69, & Gerry Dennis, 70

Robbery, handling stolen goods & GBH

Prison remains an occupational hazard if the hunger for a big score is still there, says ageing career criminal Gerry Dennis. Between them, he and brother Roy have served a total of seven prison sentences for offences including burglary, handling stolen goods and grievous bodily harm.

"It [prison] don't hold no terror for me. That's a fact. I don't think it would for him, either." However, Roy says: "I would cry into my pillow every night. And I mean it."

Adele Lubin, 66

Brothel madam

Grandmother Adele Lubin, 66, was sentenced to 15 months for conspiracy to control prostitution at the age of 62 and began her term in Holloway. She started a massage therapy business but discovered that it was difficult to make money without offering extra services – and as her business expanded she became a brothel madam.

"I never thought if I ever got caught I'd end up in jail… I just didn't think I was doing anything too terrible."

John Douglas, 77

Drug dealer

John Douglas, 77, has served three jail terms after turning to crime in later life. After marrying his home help, Rose, he found she had a heroin habit. Aiming to wean her off the drug, the former churchgoer became her supplier, then developed into a dealer in his town of Banff, Scotland.

"People my age don't do the things I want to do, they want to play bowls and stuff like that. I thought I was the smartest of the smart, and I still got caught."