Ronnie Biggs: No remorse, no freedom

The Great Train Robber will probably die in jail after Jack Straw's much-criticised decision. He is, though, just one of a growing number of elderly prisoners

He is, after the events of the past week, still the most famous elderly inmate in the British prison system, but Ronnie Biggs is far from the only one. The Great Train Robber's family made much of the fact that Biggs's age and ill health were significant factors in the case for his release. The Parole Board agreed but the Justice Secretary, unimpressed at the old lag's refusal to show remorse for his crime, is not listening.

Biggs is currently in a Norwich hospital being treated for a fractured hip, pelvis and spine, and pneumonia. While he recovers, his lawyers are taking their fight for his release further by launching criminal proceedings tomorrow against Jack Straw for "false imprisonment".

Biggs's legal team also claims that the Justice Secretary acted outside his powers in denying parole on the grounds that the Great Train Robber was "wholly unrepentant" about his actions and had "outrageously courted the media". The team argues that Mr Straw's decision rested on a law that had been repealed and on another overruled by the Law Lords in 2002.

Biggs's allies claim to detect more than a whiff of politics in Mr Straw's decision. It would have been difficult for Mr Straw to parole a self-confessed – although unrepentant – criminal on one day and then refuse to release the Liverpool fan Michael Shields, who denies attempting to murder a Bulgarian waiter in 2005, the next.

The Biggs team has already begun marshalling its forces as its steps up its battle to overturn the parole decision. The Labour MP Harry Cohen is expected to visit Biggs in hospital this week to verify his condition.

Biggs was one of a 15-strong gang who held up a London-to-Glasgow mail train, making off with £2.6m at a railway bridge in Buckinghamshire. Most of the cash was never recovered.

Although he claims to have played a minor role in the heist, he was jailed for 30 years in 1964. He escaped by scaling the wall of the prison and jumping on to the roof of a furniture van. Biggs fled to France, where he had plastic surgery, and Spain before heading to Australia and later on to Brazil.

Police followed him to Brazil in 1974 but by then Biggs had a son, Michael, with his Brazilian girlfriend, making him legally untouchable. He surrendered in 2001, saying he wanted to see Britain and enjoy a pint of beer by the seaside before he died. Since then, Michael Biggs has led the campaign for his father's release.

Michael Biggs yesterday revealed that the Ministry of Justice had written to him confirming the decision not to review his father's case. In an angry attack on Mr Straw, he accused the secretary of state of hyprocrisy: "This is the same man that allowed [General] Pinochet [the Chilean dictator] – a mass murderer and torturer – to live out his days in freedom instead of allowing him to be extradited to Spain."

He said that when given the news last week that he was to stay in jail, his father responded: "What did you expect from the Labour government? Humanity?"

Biggs is one of a growing number of elderly people in prison. There are now more than 2,200 people aged 60 or over in jails in England and Wales, compared with 837 in 1997. Indeed, he forms part of the fastest-growing age group in the prison population. More than 500 inmates are aged over 70.

Penal reform groups insist the elderly should not be incarcerated in such numbers. They warn that older prisoners are more likely to sink into isolation and ill health, and to experience discrimination and bullying, during their time behind bars.

The Prison Reform Trust says the dramatic increase is not a reflection of increased criminality among the older generation.

"Harsher sentencing policies... have resulted in the courts sending a larger proportion of offenders aged over 60 to prison to serve longer sentences, particularly for sex and drug trafficking offences," a trust spokesman said.

The charity Age Concern & Help the Aged has also voiced criticism of the inadequate services and support provided for older offenders, both in prison and on their release.

The Ministry of Justice yesterday insisted that Mr Straw had the power to reject Parole Board recommendations. "The Justice Secretary absolutely retains the right to veto Parole Board recommendations to release prisoners sentenced for a sexual or violent offence committed prior to April 2005 and who have been given a determinate sentence of 15 years or over," a spokesman said.