ON the ground floor of one of Barlinnie’s old Victorian blocks, unit manager Mick Hagan is worried about prisoners getting out.

He is worried they will not be able to do so. “What if there is a fire?” says the veteran prison officer, pointing out the cell doors of inmates who use walking sticks, “Some of these old guys can’t move very fast.”

Welcome to the “bottom flats” of E Hall, the wing of Scotland’s oldest and biggest jail holding between 250 and 280 sex offenders, or, as Mr Hagan calls them, “red dotters”, the men marked out for their crimes by the colour of their prison-issue polo shirts.

Here on the lower ground floor, or LGF, Mr Hagan and his team put their oldest inmates, men often convicted of historic sex crimes, some of them committed decades ago. Every year there are more such prisoners. And every year they get older.

Barlinnie

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Picture: Colin Mearns

This is one of the frontlines of Scotland’s effort cope with an ageing population. It is where criminal justice meets geriatric care, where inmates can be both guilty of shocking crimes and, at the same time, frail and vulnerable. It’s not an easy mix to handle, especially in a prison opened in 1882.

“You can’t paint it up. We have got what we have got,” says Mr Hagan. “We are in a 140-year-old jail that is not fit for purpose.

“The number of sex offenders has exploded.

“These types of prisoners do not get early release. A lot know they are never coming out. They know the rest of their lives is going to be behind these walls.”

“It is vital that we engage with them,” he says, gesturing around the building at the bars, thick walls and locked metal doors lit by bright spring sunshine, “but this dynamic security hinders us.”

Mick Hagan

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Picture: Colin Mearns

Suddenly the Scottish Prison Service – after centuries of locking up young men – is having to deal with the old. Scotland now has far more over-50s behind bars than young offenders.

As of last October, there were more than 1,000 men over 50 in prison; including 136 aged between 60 and 64 and 152 over 65. There were also three women of pensionable age. Compare that with 320 young male offenders, convicted or on remand, as of this month.

The result? Some prisoners are dying of old age – one man with dementia passed way on Christmas Day in Barlinnie. Others are developing Alzheimer’s and disabilities that are really hard to deal with behind bars.

Jails are having to provide palliative care: tending to men ending their lives in pain. Recent evidence suggests 140 people may need what is called “free personal care” for the old outside.

Upper Galleries of Barlinnie's E Hall

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Picture: Colin Mearns

This has all happened in just the past few short years of Mr Hagan’s 25-year career. Prisons have tried to adapt. Newer ones have better facilities: but there are just 60 “accessible” cells in Scotland In E Hall there is one room fully adapted for wheelchairs, the old slopping out space where prisoners used to take their chamber pots.

Some of the other cells on the lower ground floor, built like the rest of the jail, have been kitted out as best they can be to cope with men who cannot manage the stairs to the upper galleries.

One such prisoner is a child rapist who has spent many years inside after several horrific cases of abuse that made big headlines. Closing in on pension age, he stands in his cell door, propped up by two sticks, and lists his ailments until he runs out of fingers.

One of his diseases will kill him, he says. “The Government opened up a Pandora’s Box when it decided to do a purge on these historic child sex abuse investigations,” he complains.

“The elderly prison population has mushroomed and all they can do is warehouse us. So, by the very nature of E Hall, we have more elderly prisoners and disabled ones.”

The Bottom Flats in Barlinnie's E Hall

HeraldScotland:

Picture: Colin Mearns

Sex offenders are always hard to manage. The child rapist with sticks says he finds the exercise yard “intimidating” and talks of fellow prisoners losing touch inside and sinking in a depression. “The staff do they best they can,” he says. “They are very good.”

Mr Hagan’s officers – who rarely ask what offences their inmates have committed – closely watch out for the malaise that can fall over men locked up for terrible crimes.

He says: “They tend to suffer from isolation because of the nature of their offending. A lot of them have lost their families and friends. Our staff are really good at spotting this and helping the prisoners get through.”

Hanging baskets outside gate to E Hall

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Prison officers know that it is in no-one’s interest for those they lock up to be depressed or unable to face rehabilitation because of illness, age or psychiatric problems.

Workers are frank about what they want: a special jail for the old, or at the very least a wing of a prison. “That would be ideal”, said Mr Hagan.

Some politicians may find this unpalatable, especially given that many of the oldest prisoners (though far from all) have committed the most heinous crimes and public sympathy for them is low. Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, however, agrees with Mr Hagan. The SNP figure said: “A purpose-built and lightly-secure care facility is more appropriate than a normal institution. It’s not simply for the welfare of prisoners but for staff.”

Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill

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BACKGROUND: Kenny MacAskill writes in The Herald about older prisoners.

Andrew Coyle, once governor of Peterhead, another grim Victorian jail which housed sex offenders, and now a professor of prison studies at London University, added: “Traditionally, prisons have been organised to cater primarily for active, fit male prisoners and that has been reflected in their architecture.

“The Prison Service is having to cope with an increasing number of older and infirm prisoners. In the near future this may well require the construction of purpose-built units with less focus on security and control and more on health and care provision for an ageing population.”

Disabled prisoner in Barlinnie

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Picture: Colin Mearns

E Hall has two hanging flower baskets by its gate, before the barbed wire and high walls of Barlinnie jails.

But just before the doorway, Mr Hagan stops by a cell door, and points to a notice on the whitewashed brick wall.

It gives the name of an inmate, a high-profile convicted paedophile rapist and, in red marker, adds: “PEEP.”

This stands for personal emergency evacuation plan and it means the prisoner, who is approaching his 80s and has Alzheimer’s and other health conditions, will get help to leave the building.

Behind the cell’s steel door a short, bald man, his belly paunched, sits on a plastic garden chair, hunched over a TV and waits to die.

“I will more than likely end my days here. I will be nearly 90 if I ever get out,” he says. “But I did wrong.”