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Policy, honestly

The real-life impacts of policy decisions

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The policy:

The imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence in the UK was a type of indeterminate sentence under which offenders were given a minimum prison tariff but no maximum for a range of crimes.

The idea was to prevent serious offenders who did not warrant a life sentence but were deemed to pose a risk to the public from being released. Some of those convicted, though, had not committed serious offences and were jailed under IPP for crimes that only warranted sentences of two years or less.

Under a deluge of criticism and the number of people being convicted under the scheme rapidly spiralling, the sentence was scrapped in 2012. But not retrospectively, meaning that almost 3,000 legacy offenders remain in jail.

In February 2023, the UK’s justice minister Dominic Raab rejected a call by MPs and campaigners to resentence or release people still being held under IPP orders, leaving those convicted before the scheme was scrapped in a state of perpetual limbo.

The impact:

For most people who encounter the British justice system, there is a beginning, middle and end: crime, arrest, sentence, release.

If released before their full sentence is completed, they are “on licence”, which means they must stick to certain conditions and submit to supervision from probation officers. Eventually, the conviction will be “spent”, and they will be fully free.

But that’s not the case for people who were convicted on IPP sentences. I experienced first-hand the impact those sentences have on individuals when I worked as a community probation officer.

A prison officer stands outside Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London, Britain, September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

A prison officer stands outside Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London, Britain, September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

The objective for most people on probation is to get through supervision as quickly and as painlessly as possible. They turn up to appointments on time and complete set objectives, always with one goal in sight: no licence, no supervision, just freedom.

For those on IPP, it’s different. No matter how many work placements or upskill programmes they complete, no matter how well they present, or try to better themselves, it’s a sentence they cannot shake. They are, in effect, on endless probation unless an application for their licence to be cancelled after 10 years is successful.

One of my cases was recalled to prison for living in a shared house with a man who was arrested for possession of illegal drugs.

Paul (I have changed his name) had served 16 years for a robbery he committed in 1998 on an eight-year minimum tariff.

In his seven years on probation until that point, there had not been one issue on his file with attendance, further offending or risk factors escalating. By the time I managed to speak to Paul, the other man had already been released. I’d seen the paperwork.

For Paul, however, a recall meant going back to the cells and having his parole hearing delayed due to the COVID pandemic. Despite my recommendation of immediate release, Paul would have to wait before he was able to return to his life.

Nine months, as it turned out.

It was enough time for him to lose his job, have his house repossessed by the local authority and find himself sat back in front of me in tears as we tried to salvage what was left of the life he’d tried hard to build since being initially released.

This is a significant issue with the IPP sentence. Many in the community are being recalled not necessarily because they’ve committed another offence, but often for relatively minor breaches of licence, even when they present no risk to anyone.

For Paul, who had been in stable work and housing, the lasting effects of the IPP sentence were devastating. For others, though, it’s life threatening.

The Justice Select Committee in the UK parliament found that the indefinite nature of jail terms under the IPP scheme contributed to feelings of “hopelessness and despair”, which resulted in higher levels of self-harm and suicides among IPP prisoners.

There were nine suicides of people serving IPP sentences in 2022, according to campaign group United Group for Reform of IPP (UNGRIPP), which was the highest number of self-inflicted deaths in a single year since the scheme was introduced.

Cherrie Nichol, whose brother Aaron Graham is facing an indefinite period in jail after serving nearly eighteen years on a three-year sentence, told me she felt “very let down and ignored” by the government.

“My brother is depressed and locked up for 23 hours a day, but the real torture is not having a [release] date like everyone else,” she said. “I have accommodation for my brother. He could have security and stability here and still he’s locked away day after day. I’m scared to lose him.”

Prison officers stand outside Nottingham Prison, Britain September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Prison officers stand outside Nottingham Prison, Britain September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Tony Betteridge, 33, was given a one-and-a-half-year tariff for arson in 2008 when he was 18 years old.

He tells me that he “never understood the implications” of the IPP sentence and that he felt pressured to plead guilty. He ended up serving 10 years before initial release, after which he was recalled for being half an hour late for his tag curfew and spent another 15 months behind bars.

After release, Tony was recalled again following an allegation which later turned out to be false. He spent nine months behind bars before it was dismissed.

He is now 15 years into near-constant imprisonment.

“I’ve lost my mum and two grandfathers to cancer, an uncle and sister to murder, brother to accidental suicide, and two cousins to suicide. If I didn’t have the love and support of my fiancée and what little family I’ve left, I’d be a sad IPP statistic,” he told me.

“I’m really trying to change my life. I want to get a job, get a house, get married and start my own family. I need to get rid of this barbaric sentence before I can truly be free … but how?”

Following the rejection in February 2023 of the call for an immediate review of IPP sentences, Raab said: “The government’s long-held view is that this would give rise to an unacceptable risk to public protection. As such, the government has no plans to conduct a resentencing exercise.”

The Justice Select Committee said it was “not only disappointed but genuinely surprised” by the decision not to consider retrospective resentencing.

UNGRIPP told me they were “appalled and disappointed” by Raab’s statement.

“The reality is, the system is going the wrong way. The government has chosen to do the bare minimum and things are getting worse,” they said. “IPP continues to inflict enormous mental suffering and continues to subject people to gross injustice and loss of hope.”

The campaign group also felt that the wording of the government's response, which said that uncertainty over a release date can be “unsettling”, was shocking.

“Unsettling is an understatement,” UNGRIPP said. “People are dying.”

Any views expressed are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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