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.

  • Pics by decade_null (main) and Jason Nahrung (below) .
  • Sophie Barnes is a journalist interested in human rights issues. She recently graduated from the investigative journalism masters course at City University.
  • You can read more about IPP sentences on www.thejusticegap.com HERE and HERE.

Sophie Barnes

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.


Wayne: ‘I felt lost and scared, depressed and suicidal.’

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.’

  •  This article was amended on 19 September 2012 to remove quotes not intended for publication.






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  • shirley debono September 6, 2012 3:15 pm

    The only fair just and humane thing to do is abolish the ipp off all those on or post tariff,,,its a living nightmare for the families as well as the prisoner,,

  • Anonymous September 9, 2012 7:23 pm

    An excellent article. The only missing pieces of the jigsaw are (1) an explanation of how IPPs are still being handed down even after parliament has passed a law (given royal assent on 1 May 2012) which includes abolition of future IPPs — it’s because that part of the Act comes into effect only on a date to be fixed by the Justice Secretary, and no such date has been fixed so far; (2) that even when the date is fixed (if ever), it won’t apply retrospectively, so existing IPP prisoners won’t be affected; (3) that the outgoing Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, was committed to reforming the system for assessing IPPs for release after they had served their tariffs, but that reform had not been introduced when Clarke was sacked by the prime minister last week; and (4) that Clarke has been replaced as Justice Secretary by Chris Grayling, reputedly a hard-liner on penal policy who may be reluctant either to fix a date for abolition of IPPs or to reform the system of assessing existing IPPs for release in the ways Ken Clarke had promised to do. Of course refusing to fix a date for abolition is tantamount to frustrating the will of parliament, but it will please the right-wing hangers and floggers on the Tory back benches.

    So the outlook for reform and abolition of this wicked blot on our justice system has become bleak with the deeply regrettable removal of Ken Clarke, who was far more liberal and enlightened on the issue than most of his fellow-Tories, than his successor as Justice Secretary, and than the Labour opposition front bench. The LibDems are strangely quiet. It’s a mess.

  • nosurname September 19, 2012 9:45 pm

    I dont understand, why is this sentance still been handed out ,my son recieved one only last month its a joke

  • andy October 1, 2012 6:36 pm

    my son got 12 yrs for gbh and conspiricy to rob, when it got broke down on what he had to do it ended up 4 half years ipp, what a farce 5 years later, parole set for september 2012, probation never turned up , now date set for 22nd nov 2012 , never nicked , done all course plus many more, nice lad,officers say model prisoner , only just got his cat “c” , this country is a joke and police and probation services and judges and prison staff are all on the take

  • Kelly Sandhill February 17, 2013 11:36 pm

    hurry up and get this inside sorted out loads still inside on IPP sentance when there is no IPP sentance is like being on death row without the hangman government shake your heads and get the people sorted out inside jails it dont take this long for you to up tax but it takes years to sort out 6,000 people or less now…

  • brenda jones July 17, 2015 10:00 am

    we all need to get together and demand abolishing all ipp sentences or any other fancy name they change it to
    existing ipp prisoners need it taken of there names also its barbaric
    also ive never heard of any of the b s that run are country ever getting one or there families ho no
    and there full of corruption between them
    if goverment refuse we should throw them out of there goverment jobs were all they do is grow fat and wealthy sitting around

  • carl king December 19, 2015 4:47 am

    my son was given ipp sentence which i took to the appeal court and won and the appeal judge said he should not of been given that sentence and he about to released in mouths and have got his degree passing with a 2/1 and i know for a fact if i left him with that sentence than i know to expect the waste but now i know he going places

  • Ghazaleh December 20, 2015 12:25 pm

    My last role was as a facilitator for offender behaviour programme’s…over the years I have helped many offender’s achieve their goals on the programme. Unfortunately when it comes to their parole their efforts go unnoticed and often they have other targets set by people who haven’t worked with them on a closer level for long periods. To say this is unfair, unjust and inhumane is an understatement…some of these prisoners have done crimes in their teenage years and are still serving in their 30’s…every human makes mistakes but people change over the years just because you have done something wrong in the past does not mean you will do it in the future.

  • sarah Dennison February 5, 2016 12:57 am

    Hello my name is Sarah Dennison and I would like to tell u my story about my partner who is IPP recall prisoner since being recalled to prison in 2012 for driving a car with no licences he got sentence to 4 month’s and its now 2016 and he hasn’t been releaced yet ant there’s no sign he will be coming out yet with the parole boards having a waiting list for up to a year and all the legal aid cutbacks mean that he can’t even get a solisitor to challenge Article 5 of the Convention on Human Rights.  This is not right his parole was sapost to be last year September and look at the date now and nothings been said or done his getting moved from prison to prison when he should be at home with his son this is clearly a breach of human rights he was kicked out of d cat prison because the medical staff didn’t do there job to saport him surrfering from post traumatic stress syndrome. He had fits and a really bad panick attack because of not self medicating propley. Because he wasn’t use to taking them his self they was given to him by health cear at the last establishment the prison came to there own conclusion. And moved. Him back to a closed prison were his been waiting for over a year to have this parole board and the worst part of it is when he gets his parole board that only have the power to send him back to a d cat prison for ruffley 18 months. So in total he would of spent 5years in prison and was only recalled for a driving offence and since being in prison he has maintained. His enhance iep level so that means his a role model prisoner. According to the prison behaveya policy this is not right I would like help to shead some light on what’s happening to 1000s of people u can contact me 07539348811 or. Email me at.sarahd_85@live.co.uk

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