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The mental health impact of being an IPP
‘I'm always walking on eggshells, and there's no chance of me ever being free’: The mental health implications of Imprisonment for Public Protection.

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Interviews with 31 recalled IPPs

Last week (3 December 2020), the Prison Reform Trust published a new report on the plight on people serving IPP sentences who had been recalled to prison. The research was conducted by Kimmett Edgar and Mia Harris of the Prison Reform Trust in partnership with myself. Inevitably, not all the information we gathered ended up in the report. When we were asked to contribute to a special Parole issue of the Journal of Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, we took the opportunity to share more of our findings on the terrible impact of IPPs on the mental wellbeing (both in prison and in the community) of people who serve these indeterminate sentences. You can read the article (for which Mia Harris @mia_harris was the lead author) in full here.


People given IPPs were disproportionately likely to have pre‐existing mental health problems and research documents the negative mental health implications of IPP imprisonment. The indeterminacy of imprisonment can leave people feeling hopeless and helpless yet afraid of seeking support which might prolong their imprisonment. Mental ill‐health can in turn limit progress towards release. Serving an abolished sentence can make people feel ‘disenfranchised, frustrated and distressed’ (a quote from Sarah Smart’s research with women IPPs summarised here). Research indicates IPP prisoners’ fears about life post‐release; of recall for minor incidents or false allegations and being unable to avoid trouble given life circumstances. Our study confirmed many of these findings, but also gave us the opportunity to focus on the IPP’s mental health implications for people on licence and post‐recall, so far a relatively under-researched topic. 

Three themes

Three main themes emerged from our conversations with people serving IPP sentences who had been released and then recalled to prison. 

  1. a perpetual state of anxiety about recall and spending additional years behind bars;
  2. self‐imposed social isolation, both in the community and in prison; 
  3. and a profound sense of hopelessness. 

The people we spoke to often described feeling trapped in an unjust and inevitable cycle of imprisonment, and most had little faith in a positive future.

Walking on eggshells

On licence, the prospect of indefinite recall often provoked acute anxiety:

“[Recall] was on my mind 24/7. I even had nightmares [about] spending another decade in prison … I sometimes think, ‘do probation know what they’re doing to other people?’ I’ve got severe depression, severe anxiety and paranoia.”

People were anxious due to recall’s profound consequences and their perceptions of how easily it could be enacted. Malicious accusations were a common concern:

“Being IPP you always worry about getting recalled, because the slightest thing someone says, you’re recalled. They only listen to one side.”

Beyond malicious allegations, participants worried about recall for other circumstances beyond their control. One woman was recalled after being arrested, but not charged, for assaulting someone she had in fact assisted:

“I’d never help anyone again… I should have thought about being an IPP and how it’d look.”

Another worried her friends’ actions could elicit recall:

“The IPP’s a lot more stressful outside. You’re terrified to do anything normal, to go out with your friends. I can’t control what other people do; so it’s really scary.”

Like several others, she considered life harder on licence than in prison due to the relentless pressure of monitoring her own and others’ behaviour:

“I may as well just stay in prison, as it’s less stress than a life of fear out there…I was a prisoner in the community, living in utter and total fear… The amount of times I wet myself due to the sounds of an ambulance or police siren.”

Social isolation

In prison and the community, anxiety led some participants to self‐isolate. People in prison worried about becoming involved in fights or criminal activity. People in the commuity worried more broadly about interpersonal relations, seeing self‐isolation as the only certain way of avoiding recall:

“The only way to avoid a recall is by having as little contact with other people as possible…I never once went on a bus. If I had to go to the shops, it was eyes down and in and out and back home. At work I was in fear to make new friends…Any disagreement or upset will put me back into prison.”

Such accounts are worrying since social isolation and loneliness are well‐established risk factors for mental ill‐health ( and positive social relationships promote desistance from crime. Beyond avoiding peers, friends and family, some restricted contact with probation for fear of recall:

“I didn’t want help from the system; they terrorised me. I went to probation, but I kept my distance. The less talking to them the better, because they can recall me.”

Avoiding openness with probation might make people feel safer in the short‐term, but could prevent access to necessary
support, increasing long‐term prospects of recall. Particularly concerning was the (well‐grounded) fear that disclosing mental ill‐health could provoke assessments of increased risk and therefore recall:

“I felt myself slipping back a bit, but I was afraid to ask for help.”


We found that recall can leave people feeling back at square one and in a process of release and recall which they felt was “never-ending”. This was unsurprising given that the majority of people given IPPs had already served many years longer than their tariff date before being released in the first place. Our participants often felt powerlessness about re‐release. They were frustrated by long waits for parole hearings and courses, and judgements about their needs and risks:

“It’s like looking at clouds, you can see any shape you want. My past behaviour gets examined. You could look at it and see literally anything.”

A common theme was frustration at effectively serving life sentences for crimes that would otherwise have merited determinate sentences:

“It’s wrong, like they said when they abolished the IPP…I committed an offence aged 18. I’m 31, still sat in prison…I should have an end‐date to my sentence. Other people get an end date.”

One man shared a phrase describing IPP prisoners’ frustration with the common disparity between their sentence and crime:

“IPP to me is life…Murderers and lifers say we’re ‘moody lifers’, cos we ain’t committed murder [but
effectively have life sentences]”


The Coalition Government abolished IPPs in 2012 on the basis that they were fundamentally unjust but the legislation introduced to abolish the sentence did not apply retrospectively – in other words, the more than 6,000 sentenced to an IPP continue to be trapped in the system. If and when they are released (or re-released), they are  perpetually at risk of being recalled to prison, in more than half of cases despite not having committed a further offence.

It will take a Justice Secretary with real moral courage to rectify this wrong and convert these indeterminate sentences to normal, determinate ones based on the sentencing judges’ original tariff. We must and wait and see if Robert Buckland has that courage.


Thanks to Ayo Ogunseinde for permission to use the header image, previously published on Unsplash. You can see Ayo’s work here.

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4 responses

  1. This makes harrowing reading and it’s truly concerning if prisoners on licence feel afraid to ask for help for fear it may lead to recall.
    I have met a good number of prisoners (particularly from the early days after the IPP sentence was first introduced) who should not have been given an IPP sentence. In many cases they were given a ridiculously short tariff.
    There is however another side of the argument that I have rarely seen articulated. I have met a good number of IPP prisoners, with a long history of offending, often violently, who have said that for them the IPP made a real difference. When they realised they may never be released, for the first time they engaged with the professionals managing them, completed offending behaviour work to reduce their risk, addressed their issues around drugs/alcohol, had counselling for childhood trauma, and had truly changed their world view and future prospects. As one prisoner said to me, “before I had a release date so I just used to sit tight, not engage, and keep my head down waiting to be released. And I’d come out just the same as when I went in”. So for some IPP sentences did the trick.

  2. This particular sentence would damage even the strongest of men and indeed any woman unfortunate to have been handed down an “Indeterminate Public Protection” order by the courts. On learning in the prison reception that I was then to be categorised as a life sentenced prisoner, in short because there wasn’t any other architecture in place to otherwise support an expedient process towards release, unlike that say of a determinant prisoner. One would require to have identified offender behaviour programs to undertake first and getting that sorted required you to demonstrate that you had the patience of a saint. That’s only the start of the nightmare ahead for addressing those identified offender behaviour programs necessary to measure an individual’s progress, will prove an altogether different and indeed difficult proposition, because no such prior initial assessment will have been conducted beyond that covered by a presentencing report by a probation officer.

    Time all at once speed by and as the elapsed time ate away at the fixed period of the tariff, then soon to become expired, one’s time had also come to the point, that it almost ceased to move at all, although you knew this was absurd because like clockwork, the seasons rumbled on remorselessly and then the years had too.

    For many of those attempting to maintain relationships, be that with their immediate family’s, with a girlfriend or the boyfriend and even those once close friendship’s, their agony would be hard to contemplate and harder still for those left alone as many would become.

    Critical analysis determining an individual’s suitability to progress within the prison estate, is arguably a needlessly protracted affair, particularly so when a regime does not have a sufficiency in resources to accommodate relevant identified programs one would be required to undertake, thus compounding the harm then caused when reports are then missing from the bundle to be evaluated and these observations come from many quarters and are crucial in determining in which direction you are then headed in. These reports are of course necessary, and yet the process exasperates one’s sense of isolation, when having to maintain an unnatural consistency in behaviour, in what are often extremely hostile environments. When parliament finally recognised the genuine harm that this particular sentence had caused, they ought to have also done something about it’s legacy too. They could have done and still can do something retrospectively, particularly so for those who have successfully reintegrated back into society, instead they have initiated a somewhat belated program to reward good behaviour here on the street to release those from this ludicrously absurd sentence after a further 10 years on license. Conditions apply. I often felt abandoned within the system and felt helpless to know what to do for the best, for my resilience or this stubbornness to not give in would in itself seem at times,to be like a curse. Should anyone read this who are caught up in this hellish nightmare, don’t give up trying and know this, you are worth it.

    I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have had such good conscientious probation officer’s here on the outside, because it has not been at all easy.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, Martin and for your words of encouragement to anyone else struggling to cope with the particularly difficult requirements of an IPP sentence.

  4. My fiance is now on year 10 of he’s 3 year 3 month tariff it’s the hardest thing to keep him focused when the ipp status has killed my heart and soul, every parole he’s been knocked back as they added course after course (all complete on sentance plan by 2015) as until this year the system failed to see he had ADHD and now he’s been assessed and medicated for ADHD he’s still waiting for parole . He’s mental health hit a all time low last year and he actually couldn’t take no more and attempted suicide thank god he made it through and is now slowly getting mentally better this last year of no face to face visits and the fact he’s over 300 miles away from home makes it so hard but I try to keep him focused and motivated and spend fortunes on letter writing card sending and the email a prisoner and the phone credit which he needs to have just to keep that contact with me and the children..but now the Jail he’s in has stopped the daily allowance of putting emergency phone credit on so this is going to cause alot of problems with he’s emotional and mental health especially as they are locked up 22 hours a day … I just wished that after the years of protesting..pleading with the parole board and MPs something could be done…as he’s served longer than a rapist and murders get and all for a punch…

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