Eradicating 'this IPP stain': can Imprisonment for Public Protection really be eliminated?

Roger Grimshaw
Friday, 10 September 2021

‘Our reputation as a just nation demands that this IPP stain be at last eradicated.’ Lord Brown of Eaton-Under-Heywood Justice of the Supreme Court 2009-2012, in his foreword to a report by the Prison Reform Trust. 

When a former Supreme Court Justice denounces a sentence as a ‘stain’ on our justice system, you might think that there would be accelerated review and action at a high level of the state. If so, you might be disappointed by the defences offered in Parliament by the government, when questioned about releases and recalls to prison for people still under IPP conditions.

The unreleased population of IPP prisoners in September 2020 stood at the remarkable figure of 1,895.

Abolition in name only?

Imprisonment for Public Protection was legislated in 2003, combining a fixed period of punishment and an indeterminate period in which release could be obtained if authorized by the Parole Board. It was the failure of the Home Secretary to provide suitable programmes - the principal means by which prisoners could satisfy the Board they could be released safely - which led to its undoing; the sentence was abolished eventually in 2012, but those previously sentenced were left subject to its strictures.

The irony of abolition consists in the fact that, despite being the acknowledged victims of a failed system, their releases continued to be long delayed and many, having fallen foul of the strict demands of supervision on licence, have been recalled to prison.

Psychological consequences

Critics point to the distress caused by all the uncertainties and promises that have been betrayed. Up to the end of 2019, 194 IPP prisoners have died in prison, including 63 judged as self-inflicted. ‘They said the anti-depressants I was on were too serious for me to be in open conditions.’ (IPP prisoner interviewed by Prison Reform Trust)

The seriousness of the mental health impacts of being held under IPP in austere prison environments must raise questions about the injustice of a system which considers mental distress as a possible risk factor, and in this case, appears to regard mental health treatment itself as a reason for denying access to freer conditions.

We are very far from a concern with public protection here. It is vitally urgent to review the evidence about the psychological consequences of IPP, and to understand better how far the system for risk assessment in prisons and by the Parole Board is adequate to deal with the cases of prisoners whose priority need is relief from uncertainty, and, where necessary, access to mental health services and other forms of support.

Should some, for example, be transferred to psychiatric facilities, and have their cases reviewed in a different way? Would not more hopeful prospects begin to relieve at least part of their distress? The risk for defenders of the current position is that any piercing light on the situation of these prisoners would expose the parlous state of rehabilitative provision in prisons, especially the failings of mental health services.

Would not more holistic and trauma-informed mental health services in prisons and in the community form the seeds of a better approach to addressing the underlying needs?

Questions of legal accountability

Arbitrary detention is an infringement of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Given the treatment of IPP prisoners by legislators, prisons and the Parole Board over many years, is there a case that would persuade a tribunal that the prisoners have been subjected to a system of arbitrary detention? Does their experience fall under the definition of maltreatment in the UN Convention Against Torture? Which public law duties have been breached?

The overriding aim of IPP has been protection of the public. If a tribunal included lay members drawn from the public, what would they make of this case? Importantly, what decisive legislative changes could flow from an acceptance that these injustices require action?

Coming together to make the case

A range of organisations and individuals have made excellent contributions to exposing the injustices of IPP over several years. The challenge now is to develop a concerted strategy for collating the evidence and making the case for its final demise to decision-makers, including the public and the legislators.

The Centre values all those who have striven to make changes and wishes to consult with them, and with others who may have relevant knowledge and can bring new suggestions.

How you can help

The Centre is focusing on ways of collating evidence that will take the true measure of IPP’s impacts, and instigate a strategic process towards decisive change. The course of IPP has been dogged by conservatism and caution and there are no guarantees that the obstacles will soon be finally overcome.

But the gathering oppression, as yet further years in jail loom ahead for some prisoners, compels attention and action. We cannot do this on our own: hence our fresh appeal for researchers, practitioners and people affected by the sentence to let us know if they are willing to come forward with evidence and suggestions about how to break the deadlock. Get in touch with us if you'd like to contribute - whether you're a researcher, practitioner, former IPP prisoner or family member of an IPP prisoner.