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The stain of the Imprisonment for Public Protection sentence

The Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence has received considerable public attention since the tragic London Bridge attack on Friday. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has even raised concerns about why it was abolished in 2012. His concerns overlook the reality that the sentence was overwhelmingly condemned as ineffective, inefficient, unjust and inhumane. The real and continuing concern for our country should not be that IPPs were abolished, but that thousands are still locked up and suffering as a result of them.

Imprisonment for Public Protection

IPP sentences were introduced by David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, and came into force in 2005. They provided a minimum term which offenders were required to serve in prison, but no maximum term. Once an offender has served the minimum term, they are then required to prove to the parole board that they no longer pose a risk to the public before they can be released.

However in the subsequent seven years, as the sentence was applied as much to minor offences as it was to serious ones, the horror of being locked up on a sentence perceived as never-ending caused untold damage to prisoners’ mental health and prisons and parole boards struggled to deal with the influx effectively.
In 2010, the then prisons minister said that the system was “not defensible”. In 2012, Ken Clarke, then Home Secretary, called them a “stain” on the criminal justice system. In 2014, their original proponent David Blunkett publically expressed his regret at the injustices they had caused. In 2012 they were abolished.

Continuing concern

However, despite the widely acknowledged damaging impacts of the IPP sentences, the abolishment did not apply retrospectively meaning those prisoners already serving IPP sentences did not benefit from it. As a result, on the seven year anniversary of their abolishment, the latest figures show that 2403 people are still serving IPP sentences and 91% of these have exceeded their minimum term.

Ken Clarke stated when IPP sentences were abolished that “it is almost impossible for the prisoner to prove that [he is no longer a risk to the public], so it is something of a lottery and hardly any are released”. Similarly the government in their green paper stated that is “extremely difficult to demonstrate minimal risk of re-offending particularly whilst the offender is living in the closed prison environment.”

In reality, the assessment is not of future risk but of who can work the bureaucratic system to satisfy the parole board’s demands most effectively. Devastatingly, that means that it is often the most vulnerable, rather than the most dangerous, that remain inside.

Vicious Cycles

Self-harm among the general prison population is shockingly prevalent. Amongst those on a determinate sentence (sentences with a fixed release date) the latest statistics show 489 self-harm per 1,000 prisoners. For prisoners on IPP sentences, this figure rises to 908.

Countless IPP prisoners describe the horror of seeing ’99 years’ printed on their prison records. They express despair at seeing prisoners who have committed the same offence as them arriving after them and leaving before them. They feel hopelessly helpless in the face of potentially never being released for a minor offence committed over a decade ago.

As a result mental ill health amongst the IPP prison population is rife. And as their mental health deteriorates, parole boards increasingly doubt whether such a prisoners are safe for release. This vicious cycle epitomises a system in which parole boards have also been known to require IPP prisoners to complete offender behaviour programmes that the prison in question do not even offer as an option.

Loss of hope

We are representing the family of Tommy Nicol, a man whose mental health deteriorated to such an extent whilst on an IPP that he took his own life. He had served two years more than his minimum sentence and had tried repeatedly to access rehabilitative programmes to show his fitness for release. In the year before he died he demanded to be moved to segregation and commenced a hunger strike to protest against his lack of progression towards release. His protests meant that he was then rejected for the next rehabilitative programme for disciplinary reasons.

At the inquest, a psychiatrist explained that ‘One crucial element in any self-inflicted death is loss of hope. [Tommy was] caught in a vicious cycle, being told by everyone that the sentence is no longer legal, [but] when he says it is unjust, that is interpreted as a lack of insight [and so he] cannot access offender programmes because of protesting his sentence’.

The psychiatrist confirmed that there was a high degree of certainty that the IPP sentence caused Tommy to lose hope and this contributed more than anything else to his death.

Rectifying our mistake

The events last week and the subsequent political response create a significant danger that the lessons learnt about IPP sentences over the last fourteen years will be forgotten. However, in reality, very few IPP sentences were related to terrorism and many of them were as a result of relatively minor offences.

The devastation that IPP sentences have caused, particularly to those suffering from mental ill-health, led IPPs to be abolished. That same devastation has not changed for the thousands still suffering in prisons. That there are prisoners continuing to serve IPP sentences represents a stain not just on our criminal justice system but on our society as a whole.

Jocelyn Cockburn, assisted by Aston Luff, represent the family of Tommy Nicol. If you know someone who is in prison on an IPP sentence and is suffering from mental ill health as a result, please do not hesitate to contact us by calling 0808 271 9413. Or alternatively contact Aston Luff directly on