Jessica Berens

Sentences without end

Though these sentences were abolished five years ago, many prisoners are still serving them

My first sight of Colin was as a lanky manifestation lying on a desk in the Dartmoor prison education department where I was working as the writer-in-residence. He looked a bit like Ian Curtis; he was mid-twenties, clever and funny. He was also on an IPP — imprisonment for public protection sentence — for GBH, and because IPPs were indeterminate sentences, he had no release date. When he was 18 he had got drunk on a train, beaten a man up and kicked him in the head. It was the kick that got him the IPP, at a time ‘when they were handing them out like sweets’.

By 2012, the year I met him, he had served six years on what should have been a two-year tariff (sentence) and there were 5,949 other IPP prisoners clogging up the landings of British prisons. That year three of them bought a successful case to the European Court of Human Rights which upheld their proposition that it was impossible for IPP prisoners to show they were rehabilitated because there was no provision for them to do so. They were therefore being arbitrarily detained, which breached their rights under Article 5 of the Convention.

The IPP law, made in 2003, was one of 3,000 or so created with sinister speed by Tony Blair’s government. It was revoked by Kenneth Clarke in 2012, during his short but sensible stint as justice secretary.

Labour is out but an estimated 3,000 IPP prisoners are still lingering on the wings at a cost of £35,182 per head per year, a cost that will increase when, on release, they are unable to find jobs.

It is a grotesque legacy. Unable to complete their sentence plan, IPP prisoners became desperate. Many already reflected the statistic that says 15 per cent of prisoners have mental health issues, so they self-harmed, acted out and, in one documented case, committed suicide.

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