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Time to abolish “toxic” IPP sentence
The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies calls for the “toxic” Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence to be abolished as a matter of urgency.

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Psychic pain redoubled

The “toxic” Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence should be abolished as a matter of urgency, to restore a sense of justice and hope, according to a new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The report, Imprisonment for Public Protection: Psychic Pain Redoubled, assembles evidence from several sources: official reports; academic studies; testimony and submissions to the House of Commons Justice Committee inquiry into IPP. It identifies, at each stage of the sentence, an enduring pattern of discouragement and distress, culminating in despair, self-harm and suicide for a significant number.

Even release is accompanied by gnawing anxiety and concern about possible recall to prison for non-compliance. As one prisoner quoted in the report said:

“So long as I’m under IPP I have no life, no freedom, no future. I fear IPP will force me to commit suicide. I have lost all trust and hope in this justice system.”

The report comes at a crucial time in the debate over the IPP sentence, a debate given fresh impetus by a highly critical Justice Committee report published two weeks ago.

About IPPs

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) was abolished in 2012, yet those sentenced before this date have remained under its regime. It consists of two parts: a period of imprisonment, described as a tariff, imposed as a punishment for an offence; and an indefinite period, during which the prisoner may apply for supervised release.

The Parole Board must be satisfied that the prisoner is safe to release – a high bar in practice. Some of these tariffs were remarkably short yet the public safety test for release remains in place. The individual must be subject to supervision for at least ten years, and possibly for life, following release from prison.

Provision of services to enable prisoners to meet the Parole Board test and to be supported after release has long been inadequate. The result is that as of 30 June 2022, nearly ten years after ‘abolition’, there remain 2,926 IPP prisoners in England and Wales. Of these, 1,492 have never been released. A further 1,434 have been released but later recalled to custody. Of the never-released population of 1,492, nearly half – 608 prisoners – are at least 10 years over their original tariff.

The report highlights a number of key issues.

Prior vulnerabilities

There is good evidence that many prisoners, especially those convicted of violent offences, have suffered multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences, which are known to lead to mental stress and forms of ill-health. Mental health challenges were already frequent among those who had been sentenced to IPP.

Uncertainty and helplessness

The IPP sentence imposes an indeterminate timescale, which is known to be psychologically difficult to cope with. The negative impacts of prolonged uncertainty are manifest in helplessness and a loss of hope, which affect mental health and well-being. Not knowing when they can resume their lives creates additional stress, compounding the distress felt by prisoners’ families.

Negotiating a psychological obstacle course

Ironically, in what has been called ‘reverse diversion’, prisoners’ mental health difficulties are regarded by officials as disallowing progression towards release. In general, mental health services in prisons are inadequate. Annually, less than a tenth of IPP prisoners have started or completed an offending behaviour programme in the period from 2017, with predictable declines since the pandemic struck in 2020. Despite the pivotal role envisaged for psychological practices in helping IPP prisoners, professionals encounter entrenched difficulties in forming and maintaining productive relationships with IPP prisoners. The dominance of risk assessment creates tensions which are hard to resolve.

Long term effects: rising distress and despair

As the post-tariff period of imprisonment rises, and setbacks in obtaining release are encountered, the psychological impacts of their circumstances become more acute, and families too are increasingly exposed to distress. Official reports have identified a raised risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour among IPP prisoners. The annual rates of self-harm incidents per IPP prisoner were calculated and then compared with the rates for those on life sentences. The data show that IPP prisoners consistently suffer a higher rate.

The persistence of anxiety: release and resettlement

Finally obtaining permission to be released does not remove anxieties, as individuals on licence can be recalled to prison, not simply for an offence but for a breach of their licence conditions. The most frequent reason for recall identified in independent research, using an official sample, was ‘non-compliance’ with supervision. Anxiety is heightened for family members who share the constant burden of compliance with the individual’s stringent conditions of licence. The availability of psychological interventions in the community appears inadequate to support released prisoners on licence.


The report’s primary recommendation is that those IPPs past their tariff – the vast majority – should be released without delay; others should be given a release date, on a case-by-case basis, by judicial or executive decision.

In addition to this primary recommendation the report makes a number of short-, medium- & long-term recommendations:

  • A systematic programme of mental health assessment, including known risks to the public.
  • A programme of close and immediate support should be provided to enable those released to rejoin their families and adjust satisfactorily to freedom.
  • Reasonable steps should be made to inform victims and to determine whether, in relevant cases, individuals are to be registered on ViSOR (Violent and Sex Offender Register) or made subject to other safeguarding arrangements.
  • A holistic and adequately-funded programme of recovery should be designed with attention to family, education, employment, housing and social inclusion.
  • Adequate and prompt state reparations should be assessed on the basis of failures to provide programmes or meet known mental health needs, and unjustified time in confinement.
  • A review of all forms of indefinite detention should be instigated in order to arrive at common principles restricting its scope, defining clear limits and establishing powers of review.
  • Parliament should create an overarching legislative Code, influenced by provisions in the Human Rights Act, against which any new proposals for legislation on indefinite detention should be tested.

If you would like further reading about IPPs, I recommend two sources of information.

Firstly, UNGRIPP, the website of the campaign group to reform the IPP sentence which is the most comprehensive and detailed resource on IPPS available.

Secondly, you can see my summaries of all the major reports and research on IPPs at my IPP resource page.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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