A stain on the law: Imprisonment for Public Protection exposed

On the night of his death, the 24th August 2010, Shaun Beasley called his family from HMP Parc, the prison to which he’d recently been transferred.  He told  them he was struggling to cope. They immediately called the prison to inform them that Shaun, who had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, was at risk.

Despite their call, checks on Shaun were not stepped up and later that night, he was found hanging in his cell.

Shaun’s parents believe that their son was the victim not only of negligence on behalf of prison staff, but also of the sentence he was serving, a type of sentence known as Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP).

IPPs are a type of indeterminate sentence, which means prisoners are not considered for release until they have convinced the Parole board they pose no risk to the public. In practice, this often proves a long and torturous task for prisoners, which often extends their sentence way beyond the initial tariff applied.

Shaun Beasley had been given a tariff of just two years and 145 days in jail in 2007. But the judge also applied an IPP to the sentence, which means the sentence is technically indefinite, with the burden of proving themselves no longer a risk lying firmly on the shoulders of he prisoner.

At the time of his death, Shaun had served over three years of his sentence.

The delay in release was so Shaun could take a drugs rehabilitation course, one of the final requirements before the parole board would consider him for release. Two weeks before his death, Shaun had completed a long sought-after transfer to HMP Parc after being told that the course he needed to take was available there.

Waiting game

On arrival, the story changed: the course was not available at Parc and Shaun would have to wait another two to three years before taking the course.

Shaun killed himself days afterwards.

Shaun was just one of many thousands of prisoners who were or still are caught in the limbo of IPP sentences, often serving many years over their stated tariffs.  They are up against an often risk-adverse parole board and a Kafkaesque prison bureaucracy in their attempts to prove they no longer pose a threat.

Introduced in 2005, the IPP was intended for the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders who weren’t eligible for a life sentence. The new sentence, championed by then Home Secretary David Blunkett, was the result of a campaign by Sara Payne, mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne. Sarah was murdered by Roy Whiting, a convicted paedophile who had been released early from a four year sentence.

The Labour government predicted that just a few hundred IPP sentences would be necessary each year.  They anticipated it would be reserved for only the most serious violent and sexual offences.

Instead, thousands of IPPs were handed out, swelling the prison population in England and Wales to an unprecedented degree and putting huge pressure on the already stretched parole board.

Noting in 2010 that the sentence was reviled almost universally across the legal profession, The Prison Reform Trust called the IPP ‘one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of British sentencing.’

The former justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke agreed, labelling the sentence a ‘stain’ on the Criminal Justice System when he took over at the Ministry of Justice. Clarke’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which passed into law in May 2012, scrapped the much-reviled IPP sentence.

Nothing for IPP prisoners

However, Clarke’s reforms were not made retrospective and many of the families of IPP prisoners who had hoped for reprieve were left disappointed.

‘When I found out the changes weren’t retrospective I almost had a breakdown,’ says Shirley Lloyd, mother of a Shaun Lloyd, a prisoner with an IPP sentence who has currently served over seven years in prison despite being sentenced to a tariff of just two and a half years.

‘Before they abolished it, I was hopeful. I was telling Shaun they’re going to abolish it. It was a shock that they didn’t make it retrospective. They give you hope and then they snatch it away.

‘I remember when that Sara Payne petition for IPPs came round – I signed that petition. It was meant to keep dangerous people away for a long time. I signed that petition. Now I wouldn’t have signed it. I feel like I signed my son away.’

As of June 2012, there were over 6,078 people currently serving IPP terms.

Of these, 2,454 are currently pre-tariff and 3,531 have served more than their allotted tariff. This means that there are currently 1,156 post-tariff prisoners who were originally given a sentence of 2 years or less before 2008, resulting in over 1,000 prisoners having served at least double their initial sentence.

The 3,500 men and women currently past their tariff often face the same bureaucratic limbo that pushed Shaun Beasley to take his own life. The primary means by which prisoners can demonstrate to the parole board that they pose no further risk is through completion of accredited courses, or Offending Behaviour Programmes. But, as Mr Beasley found, these programmes are often severely oversubscribed and often only on offer at particular prisons.

Serving extra time

Michael James is one IPP prisoner who has experienced the torment of waiting to get on the necessary courses. Initially imprisoned in 2006 for threatening to kill his father’s neighbour, Michael was sentenced to eighteen months with an IPP attached. Over six years later, and Michael feels he is no closer to release.

Michael knew he would not be considered for parole until he had completed some of these Offending Behaviour Programmes (OBPs), but due to waiting lists and organising the correct prison transfers, Michael wasn’t able to even begin his first course until 2008, after his tariff had already expired.

Since then, Michael has transferred to eight different prisons to find the necessary OBPs and has now completed ten of the courses, far more than the number he was initially required to take. Despite this, his family claim that more mandatory courses continue to be added to his sentence plan.

Michael’s partner, Wendi Carson, says every delay is agonising: ‘We’ve been fighting for eighteen months to get him on the final course he needs to do, and then in March this year they told him he had to complete another six to eight month course following that. It’s mental – Michael has had to complete a Drug and Alcohol addiction course even though he barely drinks and never takes drugs.’

‘It’s very distressing. Michael suffers from depression and he’s completely in limbo. Both his parents have died whilst he’s been inside. Now he signs his letters to me ‘from the IPP hostage.’ It breaks my heart. It’s just a nightmare, a total nightmare.’

Since the LASPO Act passed, little attention has been paid to IPPs by the press or previously critical NGOs. But not only are there still thousands of prisoners caught in the trap of an IPP sentence but the relevant provision in the legislation is yet to be activated, meaning judges are still handing out IPP sentences.

The number of IPP prisoners actually rose by around 1% in the quarter since the sentence was scrapped.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, said that the IPP sentence will no longer be available to judges ‘by the end of the year’.

But regarding clearing the backlog of thousands of IPP prisoner the spokesperson said that releasing prisoners ‘was still a parole board decision’.

Asked about whether the necessary courses for IPP prisoners would be made available, the spokesperson said that ‘the provision of rehabilitation courses has increased’, but would not reveal either by how much or whether this increase had been targeted at IPP prisoners.

Baron Ramsbotham, formerly the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has followed the IPP saga closely and, although he welcomes the demise of the sentence, he is doubtful that the new Government’s reforms will have a huge effect on those currently serving IPP sentences.

‘The IPP is an expensive menace,” he says, “people are supposed to earn their way out of jail but the courses they need to take simply don’t exist. The burden of proof should be changed so it is the parole board’s job to prove the prisoner is still a risk, rather than the prisoner’s job to prove they’re not. If they’re no longer a risk, and they are over tariff, they should be released without delay.’