Losing trust and hope
I’m delighted to share the information in this post on new research into the experience of people on IPP sentences who have been recalled to prison. The research was conducted by Kimmett Edgar and Mia Harris of the Prison Reform Trust in partnership with myself.
New (3 December 2020) research by the Prison Reform Trust reveals the mental anguish faced by the growing number of people serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs) recalled to prison for breach of their licence conditions – a population which has nearly tripled in the past five years. One recalled IPP prisoner interviewed for the report despaired of having “no life, no freedom, no future” under the discredited sentence, which was abolished in 2012.
Describing in graphic detail the impact of the IPP and the cycle of release and recall on his own mental health and wellbeing, the prisoner says:
“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… Each day I feel more and more fear and dismay and I am starting to dislike life. . . . I have to suffer in prison in silence. Accept it or suicide. That’s my only options left.”
The report, entitled No life, no freedom, no future after this quote, explores the experiences of people recalled whilst serving IPP sentences. Its findings are based on new data provided by HM Prison and Probation Service on recalls and re-releases of people serving IPPs; interviews with 31 recalled IPP prisoners; and interviews and focus groups with a range of criminal justice practitioners including probation, parole and prison lawyers.
The report’s analysis of the data demonstrates that the “IPP problem” is not diminishing over time. The indefinite nature of the IPP licence means that it is quite possible that the number of people on IPP sentences in prison remains the same or even increases for the foreseeable future. Over the past five years (from 30 September 2015 to 30 September 2020) the number of never-released IPP prisoners has fallen by 57% from 4,431 to 1,895. However, in the same period, the number of recalled IPP prisoners has grown by 184% from 477 to 1,357.
The report found that IPP prisoners’ life chances and mental health were both fundamentally damaged by the uniquely unjust sentence they are serving. Arrangements for their support in the community after release did not match the depth of the challenge they faced in rebuilding their lives outside prison. Risk management plans drawn up before release all too often turned out to be unrealistic or inadequately supported after release, leading to recall sometimes within a few weeks of leaving prison, and for some people on multiple occasions. The process of recall also generated strong perceptions of unfairness.
At its worst, the report found that the system:
- recalled people to indefinite custody for behaviour that appeared to fall well short of the tests set in official guidance;
- defined needs (e.g. mental health) as risk factors;
- ignored the impact of the unfairness of the sentence on wellbeing and behaviour;
- could not provide the necessary support; and
- provided no purpose to time back in custody or a plan for re-release.
Not all IPP prisoners experienced all of these, but they were common enough to reveal a system in need of radical improvement.
The report warns that there must be fundamental changes to the way in which people serving IPP sentences are supported. Recommendations include a reduction in the length of time before which people are entitled to have their licence reviewed from 10 to five years, with a yearly review after that period. It also recommends changes to the recall test and process so that individuals on IPP licence are not at risk of far more severe punishment than their behaviour would otherwise justify.
As the injustice faced by people serving IPP continues, and seems set to increase, the report concludes that the abolition of the IPP sentence should be made to apply retrospectively. This would require a process of judge-led reviews of individual IPP cases; a phased programme of releases, with properly resourced preparation, and post release support plans for all those affected. All IPP prisoners should have a fixed date on which their liability to recall ends.
This was a profoundly affecting study to work on. I had known for many years how unjust the situation was for people serving an IPP. But, as is often the case, being confronted with individual stories which showed the ongoing traumatic impact of that experience for people on IPPs and their families really conveyed the impossible nature of their situation. The IPP sentence is a perfect example of Catch-22 where any decision can result in the opposite of what you want:
Be honest about your fears and problems in prison and risk being considered unsafe to release.
Ask for help for a mental health problem in the community and you could be assessed as higher risk and be recalled to prison.
Enter into a new intimate relationship in the knowledge that an upset partner could make false accusations which would result in recall.
It is hard to imagine how any of us could hold on to our sanity and self-belief in this situation.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.