A scandalous injustice: 4,614 IPPs stranded indefinitely in our prisons, 77% of them for crimes they haven’t yet committed. Action this day!
IPPs – Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection – were belatedly abolished in 2012 by the first liberal Justice Secretary or Home Secretary for years, Ken Clarke, a Tory. But the thousands of prisoners then already incarcerated and serving IPP sentences got no benefit from the abolition of the system, under which an IPP prisoner may not be released, even after completing his ‘tariff’ – the punishment element of his sentence – unless he can satisfy the parole board that if released he will not re-offend. Since it is inherently impossible to prove a future negative, few IPPs have managed to persuade parole boards that it’s safe to release them. As Ken Clarke pointed out recently on the BBC Today Programme, parole boards are scared to order the release of an IPP for fear that the board will be blamed if the IPP goes on to commit another offence after being released, so it is obviously safer for the parole board, always risk-averse, to reject most applications for release.
On 1 April this year, according to Inside Time, there were 4,614 IPP prisoners still incarcerated under a law that abolished IPPs in December 2012, nearly four years ago. Of these, 3,532, more than 75%, had served their full periods for punishment, or tariffs, and are now in preventive detention, in harsh punitive conditions, for crimes they haven’t yet had a chance to commit. (I am indebted to Bob Knowles for these figures.)
Following an article in the Guardian on 31 May 2016 about an IPP prisoner who has been in prison for 10 years after having been given a 10-month ‘punishment’ tariff when originally sentenced and who still has no prospect of release, I wrote the following letter to the Guardian, which carried it in full on its website on 2 June but published only the second half of the letter in the print edition of the same date:
“The Guardian, the BBC, the Prison Reform Trust and Ken Clarke have performed an invaluable service in again exposing the injustice and inhumanity still being visited on the thousands of prisoners in England and Wales who have served the ‘punishment’ period of their sentences, but are still being indefinitely punished for crimes they can’t prove they won’t commit in the future if released – a form of punitive, indefinite preventive detention surely unprecedented in a democracy in peacetime (Defunct law that keeps thousands in jail is branded absurd by Clarke, 31 May).
“Clarke as Justice Secretary abolished Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) in 2012. Figures on the Ministry of Justice website are either hopelessly out of date, or fail to distinguish between IPPs and (quite different) life sentences, or both, but the BBC says there are still about 4,000 with little hope of ever being released, and that nearly 400 have served more than five times the period for punishment in their sentences. The simple solution proposed by Ken Clarke before he was spinelessly sacked by [David] Cameron is to abandon the Kafkaesque condition for release that the IPP prisoner must satisfy the Parole Board that he or she will not re-offend (an inherently impossible requirement), and substitute a Parole Board obligation to order release at the end of the punishment period unless it has specific, published reasons for believing that the prisoner will constitute a serious threat to the public if released.
“If enough MPs receive messages from constituents calling on parliament to make this simple and uncontroversial change forthwith, there’s an outside chance that a sickening injustice will at long last be ended. (Labour’s apparent silence on the issue is incomprehensible.)”
My Guardian letter, both online and in print, was preceded by a letter from the admirable Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, pointing out that even after contriving to secure his release, an IPP prisoner remains ‘on licence’ for the rest of his life, and so is liable to be recalled to prison to serve yet another indefinite sentence if he ever breaches even the most trivial of the conditions imposed for his release. Ms Crook cites the case of an IPP originally given a 1-year ‘tariff’ or punishment period but who is still behind bars 13 years later. Even if he’s released in a couple of years’ time, he may still be recalled to prison at any time – all for an original offence that was deemed by the judge to be adequately punished by just 12 months in prison. Ten years after his hypothetical release on licence he would be able to apply for cancellation of his licence, but there’s no knowing whether that application would succeed.
Such are the nightmarish and iniquitous situations into which we, through our MPs and governments, thrust thousands of our (mostly quite harmless) fellow-citizens. Even when the mindless cruelty of the system is publicly exposed, ministers of both the Labour and Conservative parties, with the sole and honourable exception of Ken Clarke, are still too scared of the savagery of the right-wing tabloids to take the simple necessary action to put it right. Such political cowardice by our elected representatives is, or should be, beyond contempt.
Please email or write to your MP, of whatever party, demanding immediate redress for the more than four thousand IPP prisoners still languishing in our grotesquely overcrowded prisons. They are the victims of an unjust and barbarous system introduced and sustained by a succession of Labour Home Secretaries, a system whose abolition by their Conservative successor is still incomplete. And send a copy of your message, please, to the current Conservative Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, who has reportedly ordered “a review” of the situation – what is there to review? — but who may be too busy campaigning for Brexit to find time to do his day job by making this long overdue reform, not later, but now.