By Smash IPP
Content warning: suicide, self-harm
Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) is a barbaric, indefinite prison sentence introduced for minor crimes in 2005 as part of New Labour’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda. The cost has been deadly: 139 people have so far died by suicide on the sentence, not to mention the impact on families and communities. Parents have been left to bring up children alone. Kids get to know their dads only over a visits table.
‘Crime’ has always been a cheap and nasty election strategy for all the major parties, who care little about those most affected (people of colour and other working class people, LGBTQ and disabled people). IPP was no exception. Supposedly meant to lock up prolific violent and sexual offenders for a long time, a much bigger cross-section of people were affected. The most common IPP offence is street robbery. Under the law, you would be sentenced to an initial tariff, a minimum time that must be served, which was the usual time given for the crime. But after that, your release date would be decided by the parole board. Many have now served over a decade more than their initial tariff – longer than those found guilty of murder and rape in some cases.
The sentence was abolished in 2012 by the European Court of Human Rights. But there are 2,480 people still locked up indefinitely in England and Wales for minor crimes. Many were very young at the time of their sentence, are now in their 30s and are totally different people. But they still can’t get out.
To ‘prove’ they are safe to be among the general public, IPPs found themselves locked in a Kafkaesque labyrinth of bureaucracy. They were required to complete certain courses, but the courses are not available or have years-long waiting times. A third of parole hearings are deferred each year. Cuts to prison budgets make it harder than ever to access the resources they need to get out. 90% of IPP prisoners have served their original sentence and are still waiting to be released. Their mental health deteriorates (no-one can ‘work towards nothing’), drugs are widely available and serve as a coping mechanism. Both count against them at their parole hearing. The cycle continues.
Even if IPP prisoners manage to jump through the hoops and convince the parole boards that they are no longer a ‘danger to the public’, the sentence carries a 99 year license. This means they can be recalled to prison at any time for breaking their licence conditions or not being considered of ‘good character’. This makes them an easy target for anyone with a vendetta, and probation officers are risk-obsessed. Simply speaking out against the way you’ve been treated can be enough to recall you. Once you’re inside the whole cycle starts again.
It was this last factor that led to the partner and sister of one IPP prisoner to protest at Gateshead Probation Service last month. One of at least 7 IPPs from Gateshead, he is 14 years into a 4 year 6 month sentence.
Partner: “I’m protesting because my partner is an IPP prisoner and it’s to make people aware of the IPP and the fact that Gateshead Probation recall people for no reason. They don’t support them. They’re not given a chance to rebuild themselves in the community because probation recall them. No sooner do you get out of prison and you’re trying to rebuild your life, you’re getting knocked back by probation. The meetings aren’t too bad, going to see them twice a week or something, but it’s having to constantly look over your shoulder. You get recalled if you’re late, you get recalled if you swear, you get recalled if you spit. These are stuff that everyday people do.
It’s like no one seems to want them to turn their lives around and see them succeed. It’s like you’ve committed a crime, you’re a prisoner, that’s what you’re always labelled as. Even if you’ve got the tariff and you do that tariff, like, without the IPP, you come out say after 2 or 3 years, you’re still known as a prisoner 6 years later. It’s like, ‘well, he’s committed a crime,’ and that holds over your head for the rest of your life.
I’ve got a lot of support from groups on Facebook. It’s helped a lot to know you’re not the only person in that boat, in that situation. Prison WAGs is the best one. You know you’ve got support and you don’t have to give details of the crime. It’s your choice if you do or you don’t, but you know you’re not judged.
I want my partner to be assessed by a psychologist. The prison aren’t doing anything. He’s got mental health involved and they’ve not been to see him, they’re not doing anything.”
Sister: “He’ll take an overdose and then once they’re back in the cell in the prison, they let them buy more tablets [paracetamol].”
Partner: “They just don’t really care.
I’ve raised these things with the prison and they’re like ‘we have protocol to follow’. But they’ve got the safety of the prisoners to look after. One time when my partner overdosed, I had to call an ambulance myself. When they got to the prison gates, they were turned away. The prison didn’t send him to hospital until the next morning.
There are 14 IPPs on his landing now at HMP Northumberland. 7 of them are from Gateshead. There was one lad, I don’t know if he’s IPP, who cut his stomach open in his cell and started taking his bowels and everything out. The staff haven’t gone in to help him or anything. They left him about 4 hours. Once they managed to finally clear it up and get him to hospital and sort him out and that, when he went back to the prison he was allowed to buy razor blades again.”
Sister: “You’re just waiting for that horrible phone call.”
Partner: “Because the prison just don’t want to help.
They treat them awful. At the end of the day, I understand the person’s committed a crime, they might deserve to be in prison, but they’re still human, they don’t deserve to be treated the way they’re treated. It takes half an hour to go over and say, ‘Hiya, how are you? Do you wanna talk?’ They tell you to ring the Safer Custody line, but you ring them, you leave a message. I left a message about one of my partner’s overdoses in February and I’m still waiting for a call back.
It doesn’t help in the prisons now that a lot of the officers are 18, 19. They’ve just left school and they haven’t got a clue about the IPP sentence and they’re not trained.
Sister: “And if the screws have trouble, they go to my brother to sort it. He stopped one of them being stabbed. But if my brother has done something wrong, they turn their backs. Some of the time I think they don’t want him to go out, because then they’d have no-one.”
Partner: “They don’t seem to want to acknowledge they’re responsible because you’ve asked for help, you’ve been refused it, you’ve committed suicide, you’re no longer here, but the prison won’t take responsibility, they’ll twist it to make out like you haven’t asked for the help and stuff, to cover their own backs, and I just don’t agree with it. But someone’s gotta listen. Someone’s gotta listen eventually.”
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