No relief on the horizon for victims of cruel indefinite prison sentences

HMP Lancaster
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“I’m his only source of fight out here,” Clara White tells me, “that’s how I can explain it, and sometimes you know the fight has gone out of me. I’m fighting for my own sanity not just my brother’s sanity, for my own sanity”.

In 2011, Clara White’s brother, Thomas White, received a two-year Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP)  sentence for stealing a mobile phone. 11 years later, he’s still inside with no idea when, if ever, he’ll be released. Moreover, he’s spent so much time in segregation that he now finds it hard to relate to people. Clara said this has had an adverse effect on his mental health.

Thomas is one of over 8,000 people currently serving IPP sentences in England and Wales. When people were sentenced to an IPP, they were only told the minimum amount of time they’d spend in prison. They had no idea when, if ever, they’d be finally and fully released from prison or the justice system. 

Clara is part of the justice campaign group IPP Committee in Action. It aims to:

end the injustice of having an indeterminate sentence thrust upon our loved ones.

It also wants to:

get more public awareness and more politicians to come on board and help end this IPP nightmare.

Read on...

But campaigners say IPPs haven’t only impacted those inside prison; it’s meant that the prisoners’ loved ones are “doing the time, but on the outside”.

‘Irredeemably flawed’

On 28 September 2022, the House of Commons Justice Committee said IPP sentencing is “irredeemably flawed”. The committee called on the government to re-sentence all IPP prisoners. 

“I broke down with relief”, Clara tells me about hearing the news, “I was floored with it”. But Clara and the IPP Committee in Action realise there’s still some way to go before their loved ones are free and get justice. And they want to go further. They believe a public inquiry is needed.

A manifestation of maggots

The impact of an IPP sentence on a prisoner’s mental health is massive. Clara thinks the prison system isn’t equipped to deal with her brother’s mental health. They classify what he does as “bad behaviour so they segregate him” instead of acknowledging his mental health problems. 

However, supporting Thomas has taken its toll on Clara:

IPP for me has been a manifestation of, I can only describe as, maggots. It’s a manifestation of like maggots, run through my family and caused us quite bad sickness. Especially myself being involved in the way I have been involved…No different really than an injury to the brain from a car accident…that’s the only way I can describe that my brain has started to become injured like it almost had a horrific accident.

Clara describes how Thomas has screamed at her to help him over the phone. She says she repeatedly hears these screams when she’s alone. 

‘My mind has been detained for 11 years’

Clara fights so hard to bring awareness to Thomas’s case that she struggles to detach from it. She tells me she suffers from anxiety, night tremors and sleepwalking while talking about his case. On one occasion, she fell so ill the police detained her under the Mental Health Act and she has been diagnosed with PTSD.

She tells me that “although physically I’m not detained under the IPP…my mind has certainly been detained for 11 years under this sentence “.

She’s resigned herself to thinking her brother could die inside, and says, “it’s a death sentence, IPP”.

The cusp of real justice?

The Justice Committee’s recommendations are hopefully the beginning of the end of this traumatic nightmare. But campaigners are hoping that it’s not to late to save their loved ones. As Clara says:

I don’t know if my brother will survive this any longer, I pray he does… Because he’s just existing, he’s not living…

Whether he dies by suicide, or a drugs overdose or someone takes his life in prison, no matter how you look at it, his life is at risk every single day.

This barbaric sentencing practice should never have existed in the first place. And even if Thomas and the thousands of other IPP prisoners are released, nothing will compensate them for the trauma they and their loved ones have been forced to endure.

Featured image via Unsplash – Jonny Gios

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