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The Hatton Garden gang, sketched by court artist Elizabeth Cook: Many of the defendants were in their sixties and seventies (©Elizabeth Cook/PA Wire/PA IMAGES)

At 101, Ralph Clarke is believed to be the oldest defendant to face a court in British legal history. Last month, this retired lorry driver pleaded not guilty in Birmingham to 31 charges related to sexual abuse of children in the 1970s and 1980s. He was bailed until December when, if found guilty and given the custodial sentence such offences usually carry — and if he is still alive — he will become the oldest prisoner ever incarcerated in a British jail.

There are currently more than 12,000 over-fifties in UK jails, making up 14 per cent of the total prison population of 86,000. Those over 60 — 4,100 and rising — are the fastest-growing age group behind bars. Their numbers have tripled over the last 15 years, while the 15-to-24s have been going down and the 25-to-49s staying roughly the same. Figures for 2014 (the most recent available) show 102 over-eighties and five nonagenarians.

In part, it is just another aspect of the changing demographics of the UK. Since crime is not restricted to the young (four of those convicted of the 2015 “Hatton Garden Heist”, stealing valuables worth £200 million from a safe-deposit vault, were 76, 74, 67 and 58), an ageing population means an ageing prison population. And an OAP bus pass — such as the one used by the Hatton Garden gang’s leader, Brian Reader, to travel to the scene of the crime — cannot double as a get-out-jail-free card.

But there are more specific factors at play. The first is the dramatic sentence inflation that has taken place in recent decades under governments of all colours. The “tough on crime” and “prison works” rhetoric has been accompanied by ever-longer sentences, which in turn have resulted in a more than doubling of the prison population in the past two decades. Longer sentences mean more older prisoners.

The second factor is the increase in the number of elderly men jailed on historic sex abuse charges. Rolf Harris (86), Stuart Hall (86), Max Clifford (73) and Gary Glitter (72) are the most notorious among those whose past crimes against children have finally been brought before the courts in the wake of revelations about Jimmy Savile. Some 42 per cent of men over 50 in prison today are there for sexual offences, though only 10 per cent of sex offenders behind bars are there for gross indecency with children.

As made plain in Social Care or Systematic Neglect?, a new report jointly published by the Prison Reform Trust and Restore Support Network, our prison system is struggling to cope with the specific health, educational and social care needs that go with such an influx of elderly inmates. Many jails were built in Victorian times and were not designed with the lifts and ramps needed to accommodate wheelchair users or those with limited mobility.

Given the crimes that some of these elderly men have committed, and the many years they evaded justice, you might be tempted to ask: why worry about them and their needs? Haven’t they forfeited our concern? Surely, even within the remit of prison reform, there are others more deserving, especially when resources are limited?

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