New research by Sarah Smart for the Griffins Society sheds a light on women serving Indeterminate Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs). I’ve had the privilege of talking to Sarah who undertook detailed face-to-face interviews with nine women all of whom remain in prison having served at least twice and as many as eleven (yes, 11 – that’s not a typo) times their tariff and it’s fair to say that the research makes for a very disturbing read.
Everyone (including the government) acknowledges that IPPs are unjust but those sentenced to indeterminate sentences are still bound by the original legislation, even though it was repealed in 2012.
I summarise the main findings below but don’t feel that I’ve been able to convey fully the plight of these women and urge interested readers to consult the full report.
- All of the women spoke about the lack of information on IPP at the time of sentencing and their continued struggle to understand the sentence.
- All of the women distinguished their tariff lengths (which they all judged as fair) from the length of time actually spent in custody. The indeterminate element was what caused most frustration and affected their ability to progress.
- There were widespread feelings of anger that the sentence had been abolished, but they were still in custody. This led to lack of confidence in the system and affected willingness to engage.
- The women all experienced significant losses during their sentence, with five of the nine losing children into local authority care. Five of the nine had also experienced significant bereavements in the post-tariff period of their sentence.
- All of the women spoke about the adverse effect of the sentence on their mental health, which affected their ability to engage in regime and risk reduction work – it is only by being assessed as engaging fully in this work that they are likely to be recommended for release.
- Six of the nine women had tried to commit suicide multiple times during the sentence.
- Accessing interventions was problematic due to poor availability, including lack of appropriate courses, and past trauma and anxiety making it difficult to engage.
- Parole Board hearings were immensely stressful for the women and three had a majority of paper hearings, despite being entitled to oral hearings. The approach of individual boards had an impact on the women and their perception of due process.
- All the women said that simply ‘having a date’ would make the most difference.
I have reproduced in full below a case study of one of the nine women; Bessie is not her real name.
Bessie’s case highlights some particular issues around early intervention, missed opportunities and special needs. Bessie presented as intensely vulnerable and described herself as a “quiet, shy person” who was “picked on and bullied a lot” at school. She was sent to a special school for secondary schooling but the promised 1-1 help never materialised. At 11, she was referred by her school for an autism screening, but her father did not pursue this due to his view that she would “get over it”. After school, she found employment, but got involved in a coercive relationship and then began drinking heavily. She turned to sex work to fund her alcoholism. Her mother died and soon after she became pregnant. Having given birth, she had no local family support and a lack of professional support and quickly became overwhelmed. She was on medication for depression. She attempted suicide, and was referred for specialist support, but as a single mother struggled to make the appointments due to having to get three different buses and finding care for her baby, so only went 3 or 4 times. So began the descent into chaos that led to her index offence.
Five years over her tariff, she became ill and had to go out for treatment, which challenged her institutionalisation:
It wasn’t until I started going out to hospital that I realised “Oh there is an outside here.” Because…this was like the first car I’d been out in, I dunno, years, and going into the hospital and smelling the coffee. My mates warned me at first saying, “Oh you’ll probably have children staring at you because you’ve got handcuffs”, but it didn’t
bother me, it gave me a lift, like a buzzing feeling, like a happy feeling that there is an outside, there is chance of getting outside and then that made me talk when I was on the TC.” [before I felt] “I don’t want to go out, what’s the point of going out?” but then, having seen the outside world, she felt “Yes, there is something going on out there which I could quite easily fit back in. So, it’s completely opened me up and I think there’s a difference there.
Bessie shows how institutionalisation had affected her ability to engage with interventions. An additional barrier
to progress for Bessie was her undiagnosed autism. This was finally diagnosed last year, 10 years into her
sentence. She has since received some specific support from psychologists around understanding and expressing emotions and social interacting, but before this was unable to effectively access interventions, as her 7 years over tariff demonstrate.
The report calls for the MoJ to convert all or at least some IPP sentences to a fixed term sentence and make provision for all or some post-tariff prisoners to be released by a certain date. It also makes a set of recommendations for managing IPP prisoners:
- Each prison should have a designated IPP caseworker in recognition of the complex needs of this group of prisoners.
- Professionals who work with IPP prisoners should talk with women about the lived reality of serving an IPP sentence and consider their feelings and experiences in their casework.
- Training for professionals supporting IPP prisoners should be developed in collaboration with IPP prisoners and their families.
- Specific materials and programmes to address female sex offending behaviour and facilitate risk reduction should be developed.
- The Parole Board should monitor the number of IPP prisoners choosing paper parole decisions.
- HMPPS should ensure that IPP women over tariff who have been reviewed at national level are informed of this fact and updated about progress and additional reviews.
- Other avenues of support should be investigated by prisons in recognition that Offending Behaviour Programmes may not necessarily, or solely, remove barriers to release.
- Mental health and offending risk needs should be integrated into programmes of help that can be evaluated and rolled out in joint work between NOMS and health providers in prisons.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for permission to use his photos in this post. You can see his work here.