Comment by The Guardian’s Eric Allison: The ‘ugly stain’ of IPP indeterminate sentences

Why are over 4,500 prisoners still being held on Indeterminate Public Protection sentences?

A young male prisoner stands on D wing of HMP Wandsworth prison. Credit: Andy Aitchison

Too many inmates are left along in prison for too long, writes Eric Allison. Photograph: Andy Aitchison


“When will the Lord Chancellor finally decide to bring this terrible scourge to an end? This is a form of preventive detention, internment, entirely alien to our traditional criminal justice approach.” These are the words of former Supreme Court judge, Lord Brown.

His Lordship was talking about a scar that has defaced the penal system since 2005, with the introduction of Indeterminate Public Protection (IPP) sentences.

They were introduced two years earlier with the intention of protecting the public from people who had committed serious offences, but not deemed so grave as to warrant a life sentence. Offenders sentenced under IPP rules were given a minimum term (tariff) to serve in prison. When that tariff point was reached, IPP prisoners could apply to the Parole Board for their freedom.


Catch 22

Almost immediately after their introduction, prison watchers realised that IPPs represented a classic Catch 22 situation.

To convince the Parole Board they no longer represented a threat, IPP prisoners had to complete certain offending behaviour courses, according to the nature of their offence.

But these courses were not available across the entire prison estate. So, you could not be released until you had completed the programme, but the programmes were not available in the numbers required.


Systematic failure

IPP prisoners began to clog up the system. The more they did so, the less the programmes became open to them.

The Court of Appeal quickly recognised this catch and in 2007 judges ruled the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully in introducing IPPs. They condemned the “systematic failure to put in place the resources necessary to implement the the scheme of rehabilitation required-under the Act.”

It was not until 2012 that the government scrapped IPP, replacing it with new sentencing guidelines.

But the changes were not retrospective and IPP prisoners continue to be held many years after their tariffs have expired – and still unable to complete the courses that were the keys to their freedom.

Currently 4,614 people ares still being held on IPP sentences, of whom 3,532 (77 per cent) have passed their tariff expiry date.

In some cases, prisoners given a minimum tariff of two years were counting their years in double figures.


Log jam

In this month’s edition of Inside Time, an IPP prisoner who in 2008 was given a tariff of six years states his case. He has been a model prisoner: never committed an offence against prison rules and been on enhanced status for six and a half years. He has completed 23 offending behaviour courses but remains stuck in the log jam in a Category C prison.

He appears to be a victim of the intolerable pressures put on the Parole Board, who simply do not have the resources to cope with the demand. And who, no doubt, are terrified of getting it wrong and releasing a person who may re-offend, and o incurring the wrath of the right wing press.

The Catch 22 nightmare still applies, three years after IPPs were scrapped.


One solution

The failed IPP system is just one of the many problems facing new justice secretary Michael Gove. Under current rules, he still has to wait until the Parole Board clears the log jam, which will likely be years down the line.

I offer one solution to at least improve the situation.

The Parole Board carries out a thorough risk assessment before releasing a prisoner. During this time inmates serving IPP sentences may well be held in open prisons, to help them adjust to life in the outside.

But to get to an open jail, prisoners undergo a thorough risk assessment and, of course, they could walk out of their jails whenever they choose. By staying there, surely these men have proved they are not a risk.

Common sense and justice should prevail. This ugly stain on the criminal justice landscape can and should be removed forthwith.

2 Comments on “Comment by The Guardian’s Eric Allison: The ‘ugly stain’ of IPP indeterminate sentences”

  1. Thanks for writing this up – it is very noticeable that like probation, it is one of the issues Michael Gove has not apparently made any significant public statement about, since he began to instigate some new criminal justice policies, like closing Holloway and making visits more difficult for many in contradiction to his statement about the importance of family relationships.

    Stable staff is important too and disrupting them at short notice also will take a long time for the women’s prison system to assimilate


  2. […] The ‘ugly stain’ of IPP indeterminate sentences – comment by The Guardian’s Eric Allison […]


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