Thousands still languish in UK prisons with no release date

Empty prison cells
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In the UK, if you’re found guilty of something that is deemed an imprisonable crime, you’re sentenced to a period of time in prison, right? And when you’ve served your time, you’re released, yes? Well, no. Not if you’re one of thousands of people stuck in prison with no end date.

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were introduced in 2005. If you were given an IPP sentence, you were sentenced to a minimum time that you would have to spend prison, but not given a date when you would be released. It was up to a parole board to decide on your release date. It has been called “one of the most controversial sentences in the history of British sentencing”.

IPP was abolished in 2012, but not retrospectively. So for those already imprisoned under IPP, nothing changed. Today, there are still 1,849 people in prison, cruelly locked up for an indeterminate period of time.

When it decided to abolish IPP, the Ministry of Justice admitted that the sentences had been:

issued to offenders who have committed low level crimes with tariffs [minimum terms in prison] as short as two years. They have been handed down at a rate of more than 800 a year…

Fifteen years and no end date in sight

One prisoner, whom we’ll call Sam (not their real name), has recently spoken out about life living under IPP:

The news that I have served 15 years despite having been given a minimum recommended term of seven months is usually met with either amusement or disbelief, depending on whether the interested individual is familiar with the IPP sentence.

Read on...

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You might think that Sam’s case – being stuck in prison for 15 years when the minimum prison term was seven months – is unusual. It isn’t. There are lots of people like Sam, languishing in jail years after they would have been released, had they been given a fixed sentence.

Sam has recently had the news that they are to be moved to another prison. They argue:

A disclosure that I am being transferred to yet another establishment is accompanied by an overwhelming dread at the prospect of having to explain my strange predicament to a new audience. I am never under a greater strain then when I am negotiating new surroundings and I have developed an almost pathological wariness of the new environment. The probation service and the parole board call this an inability to cope with change and use it to justify further imprisonment…

IPP is a “war on the working class”

The UK criminal justice system is not just inherently racist, but is also classist, with most prisoners coming from vulnerable working class backgrounds. It is a system that punishes people who have already been discriminated against, reinforcing a class divide. According to campaign group Smash IPP, “IPP is part of the war on the working class”.

90% of IPP prisoners have served their original sentence and are still waiting to be released, due to constant parole board deferrals, having to complete useless courses with years-long waiting times, and the general attitude of the state of not caring the least about those it considers to be the “underclass”.

High rates of self-harm and suicide

Rates of self-harm among prisoners serving IPP sentences are a massive 70% higher than the general prison population. On top of this, rates of suicide are also higher. A number of IPP prisoners have taken their own lives. A report published by The Griffins Society interviewed nine women serving IPP sentences. Of the nine, six had tried to commit suicide “multiple times”. With no end date for when they will be released, prisoners are left without any hope.

In 2015, prisoner Tommy Nicol took his own life after six years in prison. He had already served his minimum term of four years, but his indeterminate IPP sentence meant he was incarcerated without any indication of when he would be released. According to a forensic psychiatrist, IPP had contributed to Nicol’s death “more than anything else”. Nicol’s family began a landmark claim in the High Court, stating that IPP “constituted a breach of Nicol’s right to life under the Human Rights Act 1998, and led to his death”. In late 2020, the Ministry of Justice settled the claim out of court.

Free them all

Campaign groups such as Smash IPP have worked tirelessly over the years to fight for the release of prisoners trapped under this hellish system, and to try to get IPP abolished for everyone. At the very least, we should all join them in fighting hard for the immediate release of all those who are suffering in prison, years after they should have been released.

Longer term, we need to fight for a complete system overhaul. Prisoner Solidarity Network argues:

While people from a range of backgrounds can find themselves imprisoned, the criminal justice system locks up a bigger proportion of people from working class backgrounds and from other groups that are discriminated against in wider society. In this way, the system contributes to inequalities in wider society, and must be dismantled to achieve freedom for all.

The government wants to create more prison places and lock more people up for longer. But prison abolitionist group Empty Cages Collective argues:

We do not believe, nor is there evidence, that policing and imprisonment reduces harm. Caging people does not solve the social spirals of erosion in our societies that lead to harm such as drug abuse, poverty, violence, psycho-emotional health, or other aspects of oppression in our cultures which perpetuate harm.

Therefore as abolitionists we commit to designing and working for safe communities that genuinely reduce harm.

The prison system is broken. Nowhere is this more evident than in the victims of IPP.

Featured image via Marine Perez/Flickr

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