Erwin James on the treatment of elderly prisoners in British jails

Elderly prisoners - people like Ronnie Biggs - are the fastest growing age group in British jails. Often frail and ill, their treatment is inadequate and inhumane, says Erwin James

Given the poor state of his health and the oft reported general frailty of Ronnie Biggs, the decision by the justice minister Jack Straw to block his release on parole is, to me, incomprehensible. Biggs is said to be barely mobile and unable to talk, and is fed through a tube. Since returning voluntarily from Rio de Janeiro, where he spent almost 40 years to evade capture, he has suffered several heart attacks and strokes in prison and, more recently, sustained a broken hip. Considering his age - he is 80 next month - and the fact that healthcare in prison has a way to go before it even comes close to the care a similarly aged and ailing member of the law-abiding public would receive in an NHS hospital, it is a wonder he is still alive.

In response to Straw's decision, Biggs's lawyer, Giovanni di Stefano, described the experience to which his client is being subjected as, "cruel and unusual punishment". Cruel, it undoubtedly is: unusual, however, it is not.

The fact is that the over-60s are the fastest growing age group in our increasing prisoner population. From 1996 to 2006, prisoner numbers for those aged under 60 increased by one and a half times. Numbers for those aged 60 and over rose threefold. This time last year there were almost 7,000 men and more than 300 women aged over 50 in prison in England and Wales; almost 500 of them were over 70. And like Biggs, many in that group suffer from multiple ailments and debilitating conditions that make living in the robust prison environment significantly harder and less dignified than for their younger, fitter, stronger counterparts, of whom for 20 years I was one.

It did not take me long to realise how lucky I was to have youth on my side at the beginning of my long prison sentence. For how elderly and infirm people are forced to live on the wings and landings of our prisons has to be seen to be believed. Whereas younger prisoners generally tend to take some pride in keeping their cells clean and making an effort to maintain a reasonable level of personal hygiene, older prisoners often cannot see the point. Those with limited mobility are automatically vulnerable and tend to avoid association with younger prisoners. Regime activites, such as work, visiting the gym or simply going for a walk on the exercise yard, create heightened levels of stress for the elderly prisoner and many confine themselves voluntarily to their cells, preferring to "bang-up" than face the pressure of engaging.

Many also have little choice in their isolation because their disabilities are so profound. I worked in the healthcare centres of two prisons during my sentence and one of my duties was to collect elderly prisoners from their cells in a hospital wheelchair and bring them from the wings for their weekly bath. I often had to help individuals out of the wheelchair and into a hoist that was operated by a member of the healthcare staff. No matter how we tried to maintain some decorum the indignity subjected on the old folk was indescribable - acceptable only because they were prisoners. I picked one old man up every week for over a year. His cell was always dark as someone had pinned an old prison bedcover over the window - and the cell stank, of urine and stale food.

I hated going in, but I'd knock on his open cell door every Wednesday afternoon and call cheerily before entering with the wheelchair. "How are you, George?" I'd ask. He was a tiny, bald-headed man with hunched shoulders and a sagging mouth. Sometimes he made the effort to smile at me, more often than not he didn't. In all the time I knew him, and despite the oddly intimate nature of our relationship, I never heard him say a word - not to me, not to staff. The way his plight was accepted by the prison authorities horrified me, but in an environment where everybody knows that it's every man for himself, such inhumanity becomes acceptable to all. "It's prison. What do you expect?" a healthcare prison officer asked me once.

Disregarding the reasons for the unprecedented rise in the the number of elderly prisoners (mainly, harsher and longer sentences), my big concern is that the government and the Prison Service are unprepared to meet the special demands involved in their care. A report into the experience and needs of older people in prison by the Prison Reform Trust late last year found that, despite pockets of good practice, far too often older people in prison are still subject to discrimination and isolation.

The Department of Health has also issued guidance on the care that should be provided for older prisoners and has an older prisoners' action group geared to press for improvements in health and social care. Yet there remains no formal framework to enable the joining together of the various initiatives for better practice in the prison and probation services and the Department of Health. Hence, as the reform trust report highlighted, the needs of older prisoners are still only being met haphazardly.

Interviews undertaken with individuals for the report are telling. One prisoner said: "I have bladder trouble especially at night and I often wet my clothes and bedding. I am very embarrassed about this and don't want to be a nuisance. When I mentioned it to an officer he laughed and said that we all get problems like that when we get older."

Another interviewee spoke of mental deterioration: "When I had my parole review they just talked about my risk reports. I was expecting something might be said about my deteriorating health, which is messing about with my memory. When I am told something I just forget and get confused." And mobility, or a lack of it. "I can't get my wheelchair through the door of my room and I have to try and get from the entrance to my bed. Someone has to collect my food and bring it to me." Pressure from younger prisoners is also a perennial problem. "The older guys on the wing are afraid to go out of their cells because of some young bullies making their lives hell."

This last quote reminded me especially how intransigent the authorities are when it comes to compassion for fading prisoners: "We were cut up when he told us he had terminal cancer. The health team were great and said they were arranging for him to go into hospital as they thought he only had a couple of weeks left. About a week later we heard through the grapevine that the prison security would not allow him to go to hospital. We sat with him in his cell and helped him to move and the nurse kept popping in to see him. She was upset that he had to stay there. He wasn't allowed any morphine to kill his pain and died a few days later in agony in his cell and all alone."

Before it is too late, I would like to be able to visit Biggs, to see for myself just how poorly he really is. My hope is that his supporters have exaggerated the seriousness of his health problems and that Jack Straw is not being as cruel as many people think his. But it is only a hope.

• Erwin James is a writer who served a life sentence before being released almost five years ago. George is a pseudonym.


Erwin James

The GuardianTramp

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