IPPs: some facts and figures to trouble us (with update 8 July ’10)

The other day in a blog post about Indederminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) I described the cruelty and injustice of the IPP régime, under which repeat offenders who have served the punishment part of their sentences are nevertheless kept in prison, sometimes for years, until they can satisfy a parole board that if released, they won’t reoffend — something that is literally impossible in very many cases.  Thousands  —  no exaggeration —  of people in British prisons are being harshly punished for offences that they haven’t committed because they can’t prove a negative about the future to a room full of men in suits.  Few of us could do that, either.

Now the admirable Prison Reform Trust has produced one of its periodic Bromley Briefing Prison Factfiles (July 2010) covering a range of prison-related subjects  and containing a section on IPPs with some pretty horrific facts and figures.  It’s clearly not widely known, even among the chatterati and the blogospheriacs, that the number has exploded from 3,000 indeterminate sentences in 1992 to 12,822 in March 2010;  that by 5 February 2010 there were 476 people serving IPP sentences who had been kept on in prison for two years or more after they had served the ‘punishment’ element of their sentences — they had been, in other words, incarcerated in preventive detention for over two years, and many of them faced genuine uncertainty about whether they would ever be released;   or that since 2005 only 133 people serving IPP sentences have been released from prison, 33 of whom have been recalled.

With the Trust’s agreement, I have put the section of the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile dealing with IPPs, together with the relevant section from the Introduction, on this website:  you can read it here.   It demonstrates with cold statistics and quotations the Kafkaesque or Catch 22 situation in which these thousands of (almost all) men are trapped.  In order to provide ‘evidence’ to the parole board in support of their applications for release, they are virtually bound to have attended various behaviour management courses that allegedly enable them to reform their characters and make reoffending on release less likely.  But some IPP prisoners are in prisons where such courses are not available, or where there are waiting lists of a year or even longer for a place on the relevant course, or where the prison staff say the IPP prisoner’s mental condition makes it unsuitable for him to attend the course.  Then in some prisons there are equally long waiting lists before an IPP prisoner can attend a parole board hearing to present his case for release (the onus is on him to show that he won’t offend, a wicked reversal of the position throughout the rest of the justice system); and even if he has managed to attend the requisite courses, the board may turn down his application, without being required to give a coherent reason.

One of the great virtues of the IPPs section of the Prison Factfile is that it provides hard evidence of the sheer scale of the injustice and inherently cruel uncertainty involved for the prisoners and their families.  The scale is huge, and actually growing.   Almost by definition, IPP prisoners are more than averagely vulnerable.  To quote the Factfile:

Nearly one in five IPP prisoners have previously received psychiatric treatment, while one in 10 is receiving mental health treatment in prison and one in five is receiving medication. One IPP prisoner in 20 is, or has been, a patient in a special hospital or regional secure unit.  Data from the Prison Service’s Safer Custody Group also confirm that IPP prisoners have a raised incidence of selfharm.  Three people serving IPP sentences took their own lives in 2009.

We are keeping hundreds of people with mental health problems incarcerated because we are scared to let them out into the community where they could in principle receive much more effective — and incidentally much cheaper — treatment.  We’re back to the pre-Victorian lunatic asylum, out of a shameful combination of fear and tight-fistedness — but a lunatic asylum in which the sufferers continue indefinitely to be punished and not simply confined.

New Justice Department ministers have publicly stated their disquiet at this unsustainable, indeed scandalous, situation.  They have announced that a review of sentencing policy is to be set up and to report in the autumn.  This doesn’t leave much time for you to ask your MP to press the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to ensure that the sentencing review takes a hard look at IPPs and recommends that the whole system should be abolished:  no amount of tinkering with it can make it anything like acceptable.  Mr Clarke may well actually welcome pressure like this:  he can use it in evidence against the neanderthals in his own party (and to some extent in the Labour party, whose government introduced IPPs) and against the more viciously vindictive of the tabloids who think the thing to do with offenders is to “lock ’em up and throw away the key” — which is more or less what an IPP sentence does, come to think of it.

Update, 8 July 2010:  Now see new Ephems post about a further and much fuller report by the Prison Reform Trust published today, Unjust Deserts: imprisonment for public protection [PDF].  Key extracts from this report are now here.