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FEATURE: There are over 6,000 people in prison who arguably shouldn’t be there and have no release date, writes Sophie Barnes. Of this number about half have already served their time and have no release date.
These ‘disappeared’, locked in prisons in England and Wales are held on IPPs (Indeterminate sentence for Public Protection), brought in by previous Labour Home secretary David Blunkett to appease a shocked electorate in the wake of the murder of eight-year-old schoolgirl Sarah Payne.
So invidious are these IPPs, leading former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to describe them as ‘stain’ on the criminal justice system, that they were recently abolished but not only are people convicted in the past now stuck in the system, the IPPs are still being dished out despite the change in the law.
A stain on the criminal justice system
John Podmore, former governor of HMP Brixton, is horrified. ‘We’re locking them up not for what they’ve done, [but] for what they might do in the future,’ he says. There are currently 6,107 prisoners serving IPPs in the prison system in England and Wales. Prisoners serving these sentences have no idea when they will be released, and over half of these prisoners have gone over their tariff date.
In June the Government passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) into law. This included the abolition of IPPs. However, three months down the line the Government has no strategy for dealing with the thousands of prisoners currently trapped in the system, and IPP sentences are still being handed out.
The IPP sentence was meant to demonstrate the Government’s tough approach to serious offenders. If a judge felt that offenders were a risk to society they could hand down an IPP sentence, which meant that after being imprisoned for a set amount of time offenders had to prove to the Parole Board that they were ready to rejoin society by completing certain rehabilitation programmes. The offender could only go in front of the Parole Board for their case to be reviewed once they had reached their tariff. In practice, this was meant to reduce the number of life sentences being handed out, while also demonstrating a tough approach towards dangerous and violent criminals.
However, IPPs became a safe fallback option for judges who were worried about a public backlash should their sentencing be too lenient and result in an offender committing a violent crime upon release. In the first two years of their existence the regulations on what crimes warranted an IPP sentence were so vague as to leave the decision entirely at the judge’s discretion. The previous Labour government noticed the massive numbers of prisoners serving IPPs and toughened up these regulations, but by this point there were already thousands serving IPPs for non-violent crimes.
A quick fix
To former prison officer, Callie Wingfield, the cyclical pattern is clear. ‘IPPs were dished out, but not properly thought out. When they were introduced they were a cop-out, a quick fix for judges to use when they didn’t want to take responsibility for a violent criminal leaving prison and committing another violent act. But there was no system put in place for dealing with people on these sentences. So that left loads of people in prison, which made it harder for them to complete courses because there was no space, which made the problem worse.’
Conservative MP Ben Gummer has joined this chorus of dissent. ‘They’re an outrageous abuse of civil liberties, I’m very glad the Government’s got rid of them.’ Gummer tried to schedule a debate on the future of current IPP prisoners for when Parliament reconvened in June, but he was unsuccessful.
However, when questioned about the future of thousands of prisoners still serving these sentences his response is less vehement. ‘People who have got existing sentences need to be given the chance to reduce those sentences,’ he says. When asked how the Government proposes to start implementing this, he talks about access to courses, and streamlining of the parole process but fails to mention specifics.
John Hewitson, ex-Governor of HMP Kirkham, and current Governor at HMP Styal, has experienced this explosion in numbers firsthand. ‘I took over as Governor of HMP Kirkham in 2007 – at that time we had 600 prisoners in total, and no IPPs. By the time I left in 2011 we had 650 prisoners, and there were approximately 160 IPPs.’
John Podmore also outlines the problem with making the completion of rehabilitation programmes mandatory for all IPP prisoners. ‘There are hardly any courses designed for the illiterate or the mentally ill. If you’re illiterate, you’re stuffed. You can get in front of the Parole Board when you reach your tariff and they’ll say “Go back and learn how to read and write”. These courses also aren’t being assessed for effectiveness.’
Not gone yet
The current coalition government declared their intention to scrap IPPs for good as part of the LASPO Bill. This has now passed into law, and IPPs have, in theory, been abolished. However, this part of the Act has not come into force yet and there is no obligation on the Government to work within a timeframe. When a Bill is written into law it does not mean that all parts of the Act will automatically be enforced. When I asked the Ministry of Justice when IPPs would no longer be handed down the answer was vague, with several staff members contradicting each other before they came to the muddled conclusion that different parts of an Act are brought into law at different times depending on the logistics of the new enforcement and there is no deadline. As a result, judges are still handing out IPP sentences seemingly because the retrospective abolition of these sentences would be a logistical headache. In fact, the number of prisoners serving IPP sentences has risen by two per cent since last year.
IPP sentences are served by a wide range of offenders. There are those who have brutally assaulted innocent members of the public, such as a recent case of a young man who beat up an old woman as she waited at a bus stop in Manchester. Clearly, criminals such as these are violent and a risk to society. However, there are also those who have committed a number of minor offences – they get drunk, get into a fight, and find themselves serving an IPP sentence if they have a couple of previous convictions to their name. Wayne is one such example – see below.
‘I felt lost and scared, depressed and suicidal. The thing about not having a release date is that you can’t make a solid plan for the future, all you can do is fantasise, All of the courses have waiting lists so it’s possible that it can take years to get one course completed, then once you finally complete the courses you sit parole hearings every year or two if necessary where it’s your job to convince the Parole Board that you do not pose a risk to the public. Why should the parole board take the risk of releasing someone, because if that person commits a crime then it’s on their heads so it’s easier just to refuse.’
Following the abolition of IPPs, the Government is keen to show that they are being proactive in processing the thousands of prisoners still serving these sentences. According to the Parole Board’s latest business plan, there are expected to be 6,000 IPP prisoners facing case review over the next year. This is an increase of 1,500 cases since last year, caused by Government pressure on the Parole Board to deal with the 58 per cent of IPP prisoners who have gone over tariff. The Ministry of Justice claim that the 20 extra Parole Board members they are planning to recruit over the next few months will be enough to adequately deal with the increased workload. However, with a Parole Board that is already stretched following cuts to its budget in 2010 the small steps taken to ease its burden may not prove to be enough.
Ticking time bomb
John Podmore believes the reason why the Government hasn’t retrospectively abolished IPPs is because it would create a logistical nightmare. ‘The many thousands that have gone beyond tariff going in front of the Parole Board is logistically nigh on impossible. So they’re locked into this Kafkaesque scenario.’
The term ‘Kafkaesque’ comes up frequently in conversations with criminal justice experts when IPPs are mentioned. Following the abolition of IPP sentences Juliet Lyon, the Director of the Prison Reform Trust talked of the ‘Kafkaesque’ complexity of prison sentencing in this country. Such concerns are shared by former Governor, John Podmore. ‘What you don’t do is give a large number of prisoners a reason to hate the system,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing for them so they’ve got nothing to lose.’
A stain on our justice system
Why are so many IPP prisoners failing to secure release once they have reached their tariff? According to Podmore, the backlog of IPP prisoners trapped in the system is due to the lack of rehabilitation programmes available. These courses are scarce in certain prisons, and often over-subscribed. There is also the issue of prison population management. To tackle the problem of overcrowding in certain prisons many prisoners find themselves moved around regularly from jail to jail. If you are in the process of taking a programme this can hinder or even curtail your progress – many prisons don’t offer certain programmes so if you are moved to a prison with no relevant course you are back to square one when it comes to the crucial Parole Board assessment.
Holding people in prison for an indefinite amount of time, with limited or no access to rehabilitation programmes, not only results in a massive cost to the taxpayer – currently £45,000 per prisoner per year, it also flies in the face of a democratic system where punishment is intended to be redemptive. With no release date to work towards, prisoners become disillusioned and potentially violent. There is also the issue of fair sentencing – if a person has a violent fight in a bar and is sentenced to an IPP with a two year tariff, but then finds himself stuck in the system six years later he has received a punishment three times more severe than the crime he committed in the eyes of the court. With cuts to the Parole Board, and no clear vision from the Government of how they are going to process the 6,107 IPP prisoners still serving time, the ‘stain’ on our justice system, described by Justice Minister Ken Clarke, is yet to be removed.
Having been convicted of a number of minor alcohol-related offences, including shoplifting and bar brawls, Wayne was arrested for GBH and sentenced to a 20 month IPP sentence.
He’d been drinking, got into a fight and stabbed a man in the leg with a broken bottle. As a result of his previous drink-related offences, the judge gave him an IPP sentence. The judge felt he couldn’t accurately assess when Wayne would be safe to re-join society.
Wayne speaks in a low, hesitant voice about his experience and appears uneasy about speaking candidly in the busy café where we meet. He is a big man, but appears smaller because of his hunched posture. ‘I didn’t know much about the IPP but everyone I met who was doing the sentence was well over tariff and stuck in a prison that didn’t offer the courses they had to do to lower their risk.’
‘I felt lost and scared, depressed and suicidal,’ he tells me. ‘The thing about not having a release date is that you can’t make a solid plan for the future. All you can do is fantasise. All of the courses have waiting lists so it’s possible that it can take years to get one course completed, then once you finally complete the courses you sit parole hearings every year or two if necessary where it’s your job to convince the Parole Board that you do not pose a risk to the public. Why should the parole board take the risk of releasing someone, because if that person commits a crime then it’s on their heads so it’s easier just to refuse.’
Wayne was luckier than some. A few months after he was sentenced to a 20-month IPP, the Government toughened up the sentencing guidelines, which meant that judges were prevented from giving IPPs of less than two years.
‘The day finally came where I was called to reception to be transferred to another prison,’ he recalls. ‘I was a bit excited as I thought this was progress. The prison I was transferred to was in Cumbria and was five and a half hours away from home and to top it all off they didn’t offer any courses that I needed to complete, I wasted no time in applying to be transferred to other prisons only to be told by the governor that no jail in the country is willing to take IPPs as they’re too much hassle. After 12 months up in Cumbria I shipped out again to a prison in Warrington. I had been locked up for 24 months even though I only got sentenced to 20. My family were still asking me when I was getting out and were still confused by the sentence. They thought that I was misbehaving.’
Wayne continues: ‘I was in that prison [Warrington] for 17 months and I heard of a couple of IPPs getting granted their Cat D [move to open prison] and one that actually got released.’
Wayne heard that he had got parole on the grounds that he complete a six month stint in a rehab centre. ‘I was over the moon but felt guilty as my friend who was with me got a new 12 month tariff — he had done all his courses and never got in trouble and was on his sixth year into the sentence, five years over tariff.’
Wayne believes his time in prison was an unnecessary drain on public resources.
‘It costs about £40,000 to keep a prisoner locked up for 12 months. No wonder the country is broke when the government keeps people incarcerated years beyond their release date, especially when, for people with addictions like me, six months in rehab can be the answer.’