In the 1919 book Heartbreak House, George Bernard Shaw wrote that “old men are dangerous: it doesn’t matter to them what is going to happen to the world”. He might have been right if we go by the type of films coming out.

Three films in particular portray older men robbing banks or a museum: The Old Man & The Gun, starring Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek and co-written and directed by David Lowery, to be released later this year; The King of Thieves (2018), directed by James Marsh and starring Michael Caine, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Ray Winstone and Tom Courtenay Paul Whitehouse; and the earlier 2017 movie Going in Style, directed by Zach Braff and starring Michael Caine, Alan Arkin and Morgan Freeman. Two of these films are based on real-life events and real-life older men.

The Old Man & The Gun is based on Forrest Tucker. At the age of 79, Tucker, with high blood pressure and a painful ulcer, who was married and lived in a retirement community in Florida, drove for an hour to the Republic Security Bank and robbed it of a few thousand dollars.

Tucker was wearing a sharply ironed white suit with matching hat and shoes. This was small fries for him. In one year, Tucker – together with his ageing buddies, who got the name of the Over-The-Hill Gang – was suspected to have been involved in at least 60 robberies in Oklahoma and Texas, 20 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone. A robbery a week for a year.

He must have stolen more than $4 million. He did not even have to steal at the end. He was married and had enough money for retirement. He did it for the excitement. At the age of 84, sitting in prison for the last time before he died there, he recalls that he had successfully escaped from prison 18 times, and 12 times unsuccessfully. An escape artist more than a thief, he could not escape the clutch of mortality.

Ronald Alday, a professor of ageing studies, predicts that by 2020 one out of six prisoners in California will be serving a life sentence and that 16 per cent of those will be elderly

Older men wanting to reclaim some of their zest for life does not stop at the Florida coast. The King of Thieves is based on another real-life robbery, this time in England. In 1915, three old-age pensioners – including the mastermind Brian Reader, aged 76 – were among the men arrest­ed. The seven suspects were aged 76, 74, 67, 59, 58, 50 and 48, giving them a combined age of 432. They were later convicted of the Hatton Garden heist, Britain’s biggest ever jewellery heist, worth around £200 million.

Over an Easter weekend when the jewellery store was closed, after rappelling down an elevator shaft, drilling three large holes into the two-feet-thick concrete, they slid into the vault and broke into 72 safety deposit boxes. They relieved the boxes of their content of cash and jewels.

Older men and women tend to get preferential treatment by judges, perhaps thinking that they have now learned their lessons. In 2000, the socio­logists Darrell Steffensmeier and Mark Motivans with Pennsylvania State University, US, looked at how older men and women are sentenced.

They found that older offenders of both genders were sentenced less harshly. Older convicts were less likely to be imprisoned and, if so, receive shorter prison terms. Only for drug offences was this advantage eliminated, and mainly because of Federal guidelines that impose strict punishment for drug offences.

But it’s not all glamour. Simon McCormack in Huffpost wrote about cases where older men commit a crime with the intention of getting caught so that they can receive medical care in prison. One man robbed a bank for $1. Statistics on older prisoners are dramatic.

According to the US Bureau of Justice, in 2008, more than 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole – one for every 31 adults. Of these, 2,304,115 were incarcerated in US prisons and jails – more than the population of 83 countries.

Although extreme variations exist in costs, the US spends more on most prisoners than to educate a Harvard University student. And this cost will continue to increase with an ageing prison population. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared to $24,000 for a younger prisoner.

While older prisoners (61 and older) constitute a small minority of the prison population (three per cent), this percentage is projected to increase dramatically. The US Bureau of Justice reports that the number of prisoners aged 55 and older grew 76 per cent between 1999 and 2008 – from 43,300 to 76,400 – compared with an overall prison population growth of 18 per cent. Ronald Alday, a professor of ageing studies, predicts that by 2020 one out of six prisoners in Cali­fornia will be serving a life sentence, and that 16 per cent of those will be elderly.

The idea of being a lawbreaker loses its appeal once we witness the degradation of conditions of prisons at the end of life. But the romance remains.

Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.


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