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  • Writer's pictureUNGRIPP

Today marks ten years since the IPP sentence was abolished.

UNGRIPP marks the date on behalf of people affected by IPP, charts the failures of the last decade, and what must happen next.

Today marks ten years since the Government abolished the IPP sentence. The abolition followed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the sentence constituted arbitrary detention.

But ten years later, the IPP sentence is still being served by thousands of people. It is abolished, but not gone. In this post, we chart the last decade of failures, and why we can expect the next decade to be the same unless there are sweeping changes.

On 3rd December 2022, ten years after the abolition of the IPP sentence, we share this short video documenting the human cost of IPP, and the lives it has blighted. Please share it with people who don’t know about the IPP sentence. Please share it with people who administer the sentence. Please don’t turn away.

On this painful and bleak day which should never have arrived, we would like to extend our deepest condolences to everybody who has lost something while serving IPP. People whose loved one has died. People who have had family members pass away on the outside. People who have watched their loved ones age and deteriorate from afar. Children who have grown up without a parent, and parents who have missed their children’s childhood. People who were children when they received IPP and have missed out on their adulthood. Relationships that have buckled under the strain. Hopes and dreams that have faded. Opportunities that have been lost. Health, homes and hearts that have been neglected while we all fight for justice.

We will not allow the people serving IPP to be forgotten.

IPP: The Last Ten Years

A decade of hiding the human cost

The number of people serving IPP in prison has fallen from 6,020 in September 2012, to 2,926 in September 2022, meaning it has roughly halved. However, the IPP sentence has not gone away, nor will it do so if the present situation continues.

While the absolute number of people serving IPP in prison has fallen, year-on-year decreases have slowed. The number of people serving IPP in prison on recall has also steeply risen, and is expected to reach 2,600 by 2026, likely to rise even higher by 2032.

The Government has lauded its perceived progress on “managing” people serving IPP by quoting the falling number in prison. Two weeks ago, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab commented that they are “working through the stock of IPP offenders.”

People serving IPP are not stock, they are human beings. Their families and loved ones are also human beings, as well as members of the public that the Government claims to be protecting through IPP.

In the last ten years, what has happened to the people who no longer appear in the numbers game? The thousands that the Government claims to have “worked through”?

There are presently around 2,000 people who were given an IPP sentence that are unaccounted for in all the data sources we can find. We don’t know if they had their sentences lifted on appeal, if they have died, or if there is some other reason that they cannot be found. But they are not “counted”. For a sentence that the Government claims is used to manage dangerous people, that’s a pretty big black hole.

Just under 300 people given IPP are in secure hospitals. Many are there because they have suffered acute mental deterioration in the post-tariff phase of their sentence. The toxic mix of uncertainty, hopelessness and injustice is literally driving people mad. People in secure hospitals do not appear in official prison figures.

In the last ten years, at least 162 people have died serving the IPP sentence in prison. The actual number is higher, but we don’t yet know how many people have died this year.

107 of those people died of natural causes. The IPP prison population is an ageing one. In the last ten years, many have died of old age and stress-related health conditions in prison, not knowing if they would ever be released. In the next ten years, more will die in the same position.

At least 41 people serving IPP have taken their own lives in the last ten years. Reports on their deaths clearly point to the sentence’s role. People tell us every day how hopeless they feel, of suicidal thoughts, and attempts. Some may kill themselves if the Government does not enact the JSC recommendation of a resentencing exercise

Just over 3,000 people are serving their IPP sentence in the community. Many tell us they are alive, but not living. They are stuck in eternal limbo, not knowing if they will be recalled. Two thirds are recalled for noncompliance. People tell us that this often happens when they ask probation for help with their struggles. Many are saddled with mental health and drug abuse problems that began as a result of receiving the IPP sentence. Yet these are held up as evidence of the need to recall them. Families live in fear of the state, with restrictions that leave them unable to move on with their lives.

We know that people have died in the community, including by taking their own lives. And we know from their families how much they struggled with the emotional burden of the IPP sentence; sometimes driven to take their own lives in despair. The Government does not record these deaths.

We recognise the individual professionals who have worked very hard to help people serving IPP get released since the sentence’s abolition. But we reject the Government’s assertion that the reduction in their number indicates success.

It is not a success that people are “off the books” because they have died, often due to the despair you have inflicted upon them.

It is not a success that you have driven people mad, and locked them away somewhere where you are no longer required to count them.

It is not a success that you have released people to eternal limbo, and condemned whole families to perpetual fear, harm and hopelessness. They are members of the public too.

In the next ten years, we need more than a graph with a decreasing trend line. That is the minimum we expect from a legally abolished sentence. We need meaningful changes that stop people dying. And we need the ingredients that the Government’s own material says are vital for reducing reoffending: hope, purpose, and strong family ties.

A decade of ignoring the harm

The Government describes the people serving IPP in prison as increasingly “complex”. They suggest that the decline in the release rate will continue, until only the people with the most complex needs are left in prison, so “naturally” they are less likely to be released.

We suggest that much of this observed “complexity” may disappear under a different sentencing regime. When we talk to people who are struggling, using drugs, socially withdrawn, aggressive, or have completely withdrawn cooperation with the authorities, they are distressed by the same thing: being in prison without a release date.

Breaking down under the strain of indefinite imprisonment is not evidence of “complex needs”. It is an utterly reasonable, human response. Rather, not breaking down under such circumstances should be seen as an unusual act of human resilience. The Government should be ashamed of creating conditions that require superhuman endurance, instead of complacent that some people will always be too “complex” to progress.

The biggest group of these “complex” people is the 615 who have served ten years on top of their original tariff. Some people have now been in prison for 17 years, having received a tariff of less than two years. By 2032, some people could feasibly have been in prison for 27 years, on a two year tariff. Injustice causes devastating harm, not “complex needs”.

Entire regimes, teams, and projects have been created in prison specifically to progress people serving IPP. The system is eating itself alive, repairing the damage that it is causing by continuing an abolished sentence. Without significant change, these regimes may still be gasping relentlessly on through the next decade, putting a velvet glove over the iron fist of the sentence, wasting money that could be better spent on helping people recover in the community.

In the next ten years, the Government needs to acknowledge the truth: the sentence is harming people far more than those people are harming the public. And it will protect the public better if that harm is truly addressed.

A decade of widespread condemnation

One thing that has changed in the last ten years is the amount of concern for, and condemnation of, the IPP sentence. Over a dozen published reports have denounced it, including reports from the Howard League, Prison Reform Trust, Bishop James Jones, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, the Prison & Probation Ombudsman, the Universities of Southampton and Oxford, The Griffins Society, and HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

Still more public figures and organisations have publicly criticised the sentence, including former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, former Chair of the Parole Board Nick Hardwick, Amnesty, Inquest, and Liberty. Media outlets from across the political spectrum have covered individual injustices caused by IPP. Peers and politicians and retired judges have spoken out against it. Even the Government’s own assessments acknowledge the deep flaws in how the sentence works.

This year, the Justice Select Committee published their inquiry into the IPP sentence, calling it “irredeemably flawed” and recommending a resentencing exercise. The evidence submitted to the Justice Select Committee by people serving IPP, their families and professionals was practically united in condemning the sentence, and calling for some form of resentencing. 138 criminal justice professionals have written to the Justice Secretary, endorsing the JSC recommendations, including psychologists, probation officers and prison governors who have administered the sentence.

The Government cannot seriously continue administering a sentence with such low support for another decade. To do so would be a mockery of the justice system, when the people who hold it to account, who make laws governing it, who administer its policies, who are subject to it, who pay for it, and who vote for it all say “we think this is wrong”.

A decade of a dangerous sentencing experiment

The Government’s rather tone deaf response has been to warn of the continuing danger to the public posed by people serving an IPP, describing them as “dangerous” and “high risk” offenders. Nothing will change in the next ten years until these statements are properly interrogated.

Between 2005 and 2008, having a previous conviction for one of 153 previous offences and a present conviction for one of 96 offences meant that a judge had to deem a person dangerous, and impose IPP. This runs contrary to present-day expertise on accurately assessing risk of harm.

Professionals have publicly stated that the indefinite nature of the IPP sentence undermines their ability to assess risk, due to the “background noise” caused by distress responses to the sentence itself.

The Government has not presented any evidence that their risk assessment tools are effective for people serving an indefinite, abolished sentence. Its own guidance on assessing risk of harm states that it is “difficult to predict” as the number of people who have committed a serious reoffence is so low.

People assessed as high risk of harm frequently tell us that their probation officer has told them that they will not lower their risk score, regardless of their progress or behaviour in prison. They are told that they must evidence a lowered risk by their behaviour post-release, or it is a tactical choice to ensure that they are given a space in an Approved Premises. These are gross misuses of risk ratings, and such accounts undermine the Government’s assertion that people serving an IPP are genuinely a high risk to the public.

The Government replaced the IPP sentence with the EDS sentence – a type of determinate sentence with built in public protection safeguards. IPP is a type of sentence, not a type of person, and a uniquely dangerous type of person did not arise between 2005 and 2012: a dangerous sentencing experiment did. If the Government has confidence in EDS to manage people who pose a high risk, it cannot claim that people serving an IPP require heavier safeguards. They are the same people, sentenced in different policy windows.

Nothing will change by 2032 unless the mythology of risk that has sprung up around IPP is properly interrogated. The Government needs to convene an expert group to plan a resentencing exercise as soon as possible, and end this failed sentencing experiment.

A decade of meaningless gestures

The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill was a major opportunity to make legislative changes to IPP, and several amendments were proposed. The Government rejected them, and made its own amendment, legislating for people 10 years post-release to be automatically referred to the Parole Board for a review of their IPP licence. Previously they had to apply themselves.

This was already the smallest gesture possible: automating referrals that probation officers with commitment to due legal process should already have been prompting. But even this gesture is being poorly implemented. UNGRIPP is in contact with many people who are eligible for a review of their licence, and they are telling us that their probation officer is not initiating a referral. Some officers don’t even know this process exists.

When this change was introduced, we wrote to the heads of all 12 Probation regions, asking how they intended to implement the new legislation, and ensure everybody eligible was reviewed on time. Only one replied.

If the Government cannot even implement the most minimal change, how much faith can it reasonably expect people to put into their updated action plan, which they assure us is the solution to all the problems of IPP.

The last ten years have been a decade of failed plans and policies. We acknowledge people who work hard to implement them, but they are working in a broken system which cannot fix IPP without getting rid of it once and for all.

Ten years since the abolition of the IPP

We want to ensure that people serving IPP will never be forgotten, and we will continue advocating for them.

Yesterday we supported the launch of a new legal challenge against IPP. We hope that the Government will implement the JSC recommendations, but if it doesn’t, we will always pursue other routes.

In the coming year, we will continue to pressure the Government through Parliament, through the courts, through media, and through giving voice to people affected by the IPP.

We will not allow people to be forgotten.

And we will not let the Government’s shameful inaction define the next ten years.

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