As civilisation has moved forward, the methods of dispensing justice have grown more enlightened. The state no longer burns heretics at the stake or sentences thieves to the stocks. However, though many modern-day prisons present themselves as focused on deterrence and rehabilitation—rebranding themselves as correctional institutions—imprisonment still exerts a malign influence on prisoners.
In 2006, James Ward was convicted of assault, sentenced to prison for 22 months and was told he would have to serve a minimum of 10 months before becoming eligible for parole—but he wasn’t released until 2017. So why did he end up serving an eleven-year sentence ? He suffered from mental health problems, was unable to cope with prison life, and set fire to his mattress in protest at his circumstances. As a result, he was convicted of arson. But his sentence was not extended for some predefined length of time. Instead, he was given an IPP (Imprisonment for Public Protection) sentence.
This kind of sentence is relatively unknown to the public. It was instituted by section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, at the initiative of then Home Secretary David Blunkett, and came into force in 2005. Its intent was to shield the public from criminals deemed to be too dangerous to be released at the end of their original sentences. Indeterminate sentences give offenders a minimum jail sentence (tariff) but no maximum one. The release date is left to the discretion of the parole board.
In 2012, after the European Court of Human Rights described IPP as sentences ”arbitrary and unlawful,” they were abolished, and no new IPP sentences have been imposed since then. However, the ruling was not made retroactive, which means that, according to Ministry of Justice figures, there are still 3,328 prisoners incarcerated under IPP sentences imposed between 2005 and 2012 and 93% of them have remained locked up, beyond the terms of their minimum sentences.
IPP sentences were meant to be used for the most dangerous perpetrators, such as sex offenders and terrorists, but in the end over 8,000 IPP sentences were imposed. Some of those impacted had committed low-level crimes that normally carry a sentence of less than two years. Of these, 358 are still incarcerated, and almost half of them (187) have been in prison more than ten years longer than the minimum terms to which they were sentenced.
IPP sentences were originally seen as a less severe alternative to a life sentence. A judge could hand one down if she felt that the crime was what the Criminal Justice Act 2003 calls a “serious specified offence.” Under the statute, that could include a case as simple as attempted robbery while in possession of a weapon—not an offense that would normally result in a life sentence And yet when Charlotte Nokes was convicted of that offence in January 2008, she was given an IPP sentence with a fifteen month minimum. She was still in prison eight years later, when, in July 2016, she was found dead in her cell, in Her Majesty’s Prison in Peterborough.
Nokes’ self-inflicted death is not unique. The Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) recently investigated the deaths in prison of those serving IPP sentences and found that fifty-four prisoners suffered self-inflicted deaths between 2007 and 2018.
As with all prisoners, after being released by the parole board, a former inmate’s psychological torment is far from over. As a released prisoner, you remain on licence (probation) for ten years, after which you can apply to the parole board to have the restrictions removed. This conditional release from prison comes with a plethora of stipulations and regulations limiting freedom of movement and association. And you can be recalled to prison at any point for violating any of those terms, even if you do not commit a crime.
In 2017, the Chief Executive of the Parole Board found that 60% of those on IPPs who were released and then recalled were recalled for breaking their licence conditions, rather than for committing an additional crime.
More needs to be done to help those suffering under IPP sentences. Having effectively no release date means that these people risk becoming lost in the system.
The UK has one of the highest per capita prison populations in western Europe, with around 80,000 people locked up in England and Wales. That figure has doubled over the last twenty-five years. Almost half of our 116 prisons are overcrowded, which makes them breeding grounds for violence. And our prisons are understaffed: there are over 7,000 fewer prison staff than there were in 2010. Thus prison inmates are left to fend for themselves in a dangerous environment: the PPO has found that one in five prisoners with diagnosed mental health problems go untreated. Leaving people to rot in prison without recourse to mental health services is not rehabilitation. It is illiberal.