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August 23, 2007

Many prisoners are now serving sentences not for what they have done, but for what they might do - Emily Kingham explains the consequences of David Blunkett's indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection

Posted by Emily Kingham

Prison writer-in-residence Emily Kingham argues that David Blunkett's indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection makes for unjust sentencing and - what is more - will not protect the public.

I recently wrote about the confusion surrounding the indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) that was brought in by then-Home Secretary David Blunkett when he was having a particularly testosterone-fuelled chest-beating day. There are currently 50 to 100 prisoners a week coming into custody on the controversial sentence, which carries a 99-year licence on top of a recommended parole date, and covers no fewer than 157 offences. It can even be triggered by a first offence. Last week two test cases were brought to the Court of Appeal and the sentence was found to be, broadly speaking, "unjust".

What this sentencing policy implicitly reveals is the undemocratic nature of the late Tony Blairís government. It is amply demonstrated through the confusion I am about to describe, a confusion born of imposing policies rather than discussing them.

Whereas judges do not consider these prisoners to be lifers, prisons do. This is where the problems begin. As the specified offence that attracts an IPP sentence may in itself not be that serious, offenders usually receive short tariffs. Because these offenders have to undertake offending-behaviour courses as part of the conditions set by the parole board, and in order to obtain their release, they are getting caught up in the system because local prisons do not run these courses.

One prisoner likened his situation to being stuck in a Kafkaesque football match:

They're putting you on a football pitch and telling you to score goals but giving you no ball to score them with. You could be on that pitch for ever.
I meet men every day who have no idea when they will be released because they are not getting the chance to undertake the courses that will satisfy the parole board they are suitable for release. Also, spaces at Stage One lifer prisons, where these courses are run, are unavailable because of the sudden change in the dynamics of the prison population.

IPP sentences have quadrupled the work for all the over-stretched resources dealing with prisoners classed as lifers. Worse, receiving the sentence creates an attitude of cynicism amongst career criminals. As my putative footballer explained:
Someone with a very small tariff, say 12 months for a fairly minor crime, will end up doing about the same amount of time as someone doing a five-year sentence for manslaughter because he will take as long to get on, and complete, the relevant courses. With this message being sent out, people will see no need to limit the severity of their crimes due to the penalty incurred.
He concluded:
In short, the IPP does not act as a deterrent.
Another unforeseen factor of the IPP sentences is its effect on the families of men sentenced to an indeterminate term. By 2011 it is predicted that there will be 12,500 prisoners without a release date - 3,500 more than the current total. Families have no idea when they will be reunited with their husbands, fathers and sons.

The IMB (the Independent Monitoring Board) describes this as "inhumane", citing the bad old days when prisoners sentenced to a life term were not told their tariff. We thought those days were over and that the prison service had a supplementary role of providing lessons in humanity and respect for one's fellow human beings. This role is crucial in "shaming" those who have flouted them. At least they cannot say that those who are in authority are as "bad" as they are. They were given a chance even if they were not prepared to give others that chance. But the IPP harks back to the vengeful ire of the Judge Jeffreys brigade. The discredited practice of locking people up without telling them their release date is being repeated under the new guise of the IPP. No one has yet been released on their tariff, so inmates know that this figure by no means represents the actual figure they are likely to serve.

The courses available to IPP / lifers in the prison I work in are ETS and P-asro (these are six-week courses in cognitive behavioural therapy and drug rehabilitation; prisoners regularly scoff at the effectiveness of these courses due to their very brevity - but that's another story). If a place at a Stage One prison becomes available while the prisoner is engaged in ETS he will be expected to move, foregoing the course. But, despite this, the chances of a place coming up in the new prison are unlikely. All this Catch-22 circularity leads to more despair and more cynicism at the effectiveness of the rule of law.

These prisoners have no idea what is going on, how long they will be locked up for, and neither do the prisons that are locking them up. One prisoner I work with likened the IPP sentence to the film, The Minority Report. He explained:

Tom Cruise has got three psychics floating in a pool, semi-comatose. They make predictions about crimes that are going to be committed: mainly murders. Old Tom's in there live-o with his badge and gun before they happen, and they're up on charges.
The point he was making is that this is a story about people being arrested and tried for crimes they have not yet committed, but are predicted to commit. He summed up:
The reality is, here in Britain, we have our very own equivalent. The IPP sentence is passed down not in judgment of crimes committed but in judgment of crimes that may be committed in the future.
This goes against the very principal of being innocent until proven guilty via an evidence-based judicial process. What amazes the men I work with is that this radical addition to the sentencing laws was hardly discussed in parliament, being mentioned only once during the second reading of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act.

Any prisoner who has been on a Victim Awareness course knows he has to face the consequences of his actions. In this instance, policies made on the hoof are comparable to crimes committed on the street or in the heat of the moment. No account is taken, in either case, of the consequences. David Blunkett, the author of the IPP, could be accused of favouring macho posturing for the media over prolonged parliamentary debate. I can understand the feelings of inadequacy that prompted this extreme reaction: what do we do with prolific offenders? Tagging them doesn't seem to work. Community sentences don't seem to work. But prison is clearly not working.

My sentence plan for Blunkett would include a course in Victim Awareness whereby the prison service would be seen to be suffering the consequences of rash ministerial actions. They would come face to face with prisoners and prison staff, drug- and resettlement-workers. Maybe then they would realise the extent of the problem and how best to deal with it.

Emily Kingham is the pseudonym of a writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. She is a writer and journalist. To read Emily Kingham's previous columns on prison life see Notes from a Prison.

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Alas, as always, what Emily writes seems only too true.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 3, 2007 08:26 PM

Hello everyone,

Please could you sign my petition to parliament by using the link below, if you agree with the content. If you could also forward the link to as many people as possible it would be greatly appreciated. Or put it on your website.

I feel the law needs to be changed to help the falsely accused and wrongfully convicted who have committed no crimes but are serving indefinite sentences nonetheless. At least 200 signatures are required for the government to take notice of my petition. There are 84 signatures to date but the more the better. Since the introduction of the indeterminate sentence for public protection in 2005 it is possible for a person to be detained for up to 99 years if they do not address their offending behaviour. What hope then if you are an innocent person wrongly convicted!? How can anyone be expected to feel remorse and guilt for crimes that never happened? This outrageous sentence must be scrapped as it is adding to the already overcrowded prison system and is placing many innocent people in a bureaucratic limbo from which there is no escape. One of these people is the man I love, who is 100% Innocent. British Justice has failed him although we naively asumed it existed to protect law-abiding citizens like him.

Many thanks

Posted by: Kaystella at January 3, 2008 12:43 AM

Whatever has been written here is very true. i have experienced this myself with a partner in prison who has been expected to do a victim awareness course but unable to do it as it is unavailable in the prison that he is in. He is a model prisoner but will not be granted parole unless he completes this course.

Posted by: shirin jusab at June 18, 2008 10:52 PM

lifes are been ruined every day !!!

Posted by: jackie currie at June 9, 2009 09:31 AM

i dnot think its a good thing
to put some one to prison
for life and a IPP,
to go with it iits a
vary good thing
wot ur doin for
theres people
some one
needs to HELLP
them becouse
thay cant not
hellp tham brother
has just got a 16years
IPP, to sevres 8years
keep it up x x

Posted by: charlotte coyle at June 25, 2009 08:30 PM

i hope we all have some luck to get this ipp thing change. please let me know if enething changes . my brother is doing well . but its so hard for him not nowing when he is coming home.

Posted by: charlotte coyle at January 2, 2010 10:55 PM

please sign my number 10 petition to change the law on ipp serving prisoners AS ITS THE MOST INHUMAN LAW THERE IS B jones

Posted by: Brenda Jones at April 6, 2010 06:51 AM
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