As the nightmare of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) continues to cause chaos in overcrowded British prisons, the government seems to have come to a grinding halt when it comes to sorting out the mess created by the IPP sentence. Kenneth Clarke described it as being “a stain on British Justice” and the IPP has long been one of the most discussed issues on TheOpinionSite.org. Most of the British public however do not even know that the sentence exists and that makes the IPP a low priority for the government.
As a result of the delays in releasing IPP prisoners, in the House of Lords tomorrow the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord David Ramsbotham, is to ask the government exactly what it intends to do about releasing the 6,500 people serving the catastrophic, ill-thought out disaster of a sentence introduced by David Blunkett (on the instructions of Tony Blair) in order to satisfy child protection charities and crusading individuals.
The question relates to the lack of progress made by the National Offender Management Service prisoner co-ordination group.
The fact is that the government is between a rock and a hard place over IPPs. On the one hand, it has passed legislation to abolish the IPP sentence and has done so in the face of severe political opposition from right wing MPs on both the Conservative and Labour benches; on the other, it has not introduced a timetable for the removal of the sentence from British Law and has done nothing about the thousands of prisoners already serving the sentence and who are completely unaffected by the recent legislation. Furthermore, their release would cause chaos in both the probation and police services.
The delay in taking action is also predicated on political grounds. With Tory right wing, anti-Europe MPs already snapping at David Cameron’s heels over an EU referendum and reform of the House of Lords, it is hardly surprising that the government does not want to invite even more trouble – this time from both sides of the House – by releasing thousands of prisoners who have previously (and often wrongly) been described as “dangerous” back into the community.
All IPP prisoners are expected to go to a secure hostel or ‘Approved Premises’ when they are released on licence. During this period, which can often last for up to 18 months, they are observed and evaluated as to their behaviour in the community.
The evaluation is carried out by a Multi Agency Protection Panel (MAPP) convened under the MAPPA regulations (another New Labour invention) and is led by the Probation Service. If it is considered that the IPP prisoner is at any time showing indications of unsuitable behaviour during his licence – which is a minimum of 10 years in duration – he can be sent back to prison, even if he has not committed an offence.
As MAPPA meets in secret and the offender is not even entitled to see the evidence used against him, it is almost impossible for him (or her) to defend themselves against the often over-zealous and risk-averse nature of the police and probation officers involved in the decision making process.
The biggest problem for the government is that there are simply insufficient hostel places for the 3,000 IPP prisoners currently due for release. There are only about 2,400 hostel places nationwide and most of those are filled with offenders serving very long determinate sentences and which also have long licences attached.
The other main stumbling block is that prisoners serving IPPs cannot ‘prove’ that they will not be a future danger to the public until they are released. The only way open to them is to attend so-called ‘offending behaviour’ courses in prison. The courses are unreliable indicators of future risk and in any case, as with hostels, there are insufficient course places available.
It follows therefore that as TheOpinionSite.org pointed out some time ago, the release criteria for IPP prisoners would have to be “fudged” somehow in order to justify the decision by the Parole Board to free an IPP prisoner in the face of what are usually highly damaging, negatively biased and often incompetently produced probation and psychology reports.
One must also bear in mind that there is a huge backlog of cases waiting to come before the Parole board which in any event remains under-funded and under-resourced.
The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke had proposed a new, probation officer-free ‘release test’ for the Parole Board to use but, either due to the difficulty in producing such a test, the political fear of doing so or the monumental resistance put up by the Probation Service when the test was suggested, it has not yet seen the light of day.
This lack of action has resulted in no progress being made towards dealing with the thousands of IPP prisoners long overdue for release and who have no idea when – or indeed if – they will ever be freed.
It is obvious to anyone who is prepared to look at the evidence on IPP sentences that Blair and Blunkett actually intended that anyone serving an IPP sentence would never be released.
Whilst it is true that Blunkett has now publicly admitted in the Commons that the sentence “has not worked as intended”, he has also failed miserably to take responsibility for the disaster that he created and has certainly done nothing at all to help find a solution.
It should also be noted that apart from the IPP prisoners themselves, the real losers are their family and friends who are often left struggling to understand the realities of an IPP sentence (explained in my book, “How to Survive an IPP Sentence”) and often at a loss as to what to do about the nightmare situation in which they find themselves.
It is no good MPs and other sanctimonious people blaming the prisoner either, usually with phrases such as, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”. The fact is that the offences for which an IPP must be given are laid down in Statute. As a result, the judge in the case has little option but to hand down an IPP even though he may believe that a long determinate sentence is more appropriate and more just.
Many marches, petitions and letters to MPs produced by worried relatives have simply resulted in the government ignoring the plight of those already serving IPP sentences because the problem is too politically sensitive. However, ministers should be commended for taking the difficult step of pushing through legislation to abolish the sentence – although ministers have not yet told anyone exactly when that will happen.
The problem is that the abolition of the sentence does not affect those already serving an IPP.
TheOpinionSite.org must therefore caution anyone who mistakenly believes that progress on releasing current IPP prisoners will be swift. They should think again and understand that any progress will be slow. Difficult to accept, certainly – but the truth none the less.
The best the families and friends of those serving an IPP sentence can do is to learn about it and understand what the implications for them and their loved one really are, particularly with regard to the requirements for release and what to expect under the very tough post-custody licence that will be imposed if freedom is eventually successfully attained.
TheOpinionSite.org believes the government will move slowly and cautiously on the matter of releasing IPP prisoners, always measuring the political temperature at every stage and always being wary of political attack from those who would prefer to keep all IPP prisoners (and others) locked up forever.
Do not expect too many IPP prisoners to be home for Christmas this year. Regrettably and short of a political miracle, their release is likely to take much longer than that.
(Discuss this issue further in our Forum)