Prisoners on indeterminate sentences ‘left in limbo’ over parole dates
Call for fast-track review of thousands of inmates who are judged to be still a risk to the public
Peter Lodder QC, chairman-elect of the Bar Council, said there were fears prisoners could face a “Kafkaesque” situation where they had no idea when they would be released. He warned that the growing numbers placed on indeterminate sentences threatened the “contract” between prison staff and inmates that ensured the smooth running of jails.
“One can see how for prisoners in this situation, where there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is little incentive and a great deal of frustration, and that is what leads to the harm to emotional and mental wellbeing,” Lodder said.
“If you have an ordinary sentence – a determinate sentence – then one-half of that sentence will not be served upon the basis that you are well behaved. That is an understanding – a contract – that makes sure prisons run smoothly. On these [indeterminate] sentences, there is no such provision.”
Lodder, who will take over leadership of the Bar Council in January, added: “When you disenfranchise people to such a significant extent… you are bound to create a resentment.”
Sentences of imprisonment for public protection – or IPPs – were introduced in 2005 for offenders deemed to be dangerous. They carry no automatic right to release and 42% of the 5,500 prisoners serving such sentences have now passed their minimum tariff. Lodder said the sentences were introduced as part of a “tough-on-crime” drive.
“The government needs to accelerate the parole reviews for prisoners in this situation. [It] needs to consider whether once these prisoners have served the minimum term they can be released, and what appropriate and speedy mechanism there can be to facilitate that,” he said.
He appreciated there would be concern if those who were released reoffended, “but what should not happen is that there is a disproportionate fear of one of these prisoners reoffending or a disproportionate reaction when one of them does. In other words, [the government] need political nerve.”
One of the problems was a “risk-averse culture” on parole boards, Lodder said, because of the difficulty in proving that someone was no longer a danger.
Others warned that prisoners were suffering from mental health issues as a result of uncertainty over their sentences. A report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health found that more than half of IPP prisoners have problems with “emotional wellbeing” and almost one in five receive psychiatric treatment. Many told researchers the lack of a release date to work towards had damaged relationships with family and friends.
Dominic Williamson, chief executive of the charity the Revolving Doors charity, which offers support to offenders, said many felt left in “limbo”.
Paul McDowell, the chief executive of Nacro, the crime-reduction charity, said of his time as governor of Brixton prison in south London: “I have a vivid memory that one of the most common things was people coming up to me and saying: ‘I am an IPP prisoner – there is nothing I can do, I feel trapped in this cycle and I can’t get out of it.’ Those sort of sentences were ill-thought-out, rushed through, a kneejerk reaction to a media storm. They are grossly unfair and not in the tradition of British justice with its fair-play approach.”
The Ministry of Justice said it was carrying out a full assessment of sentencing and rehabilitation policy, including IPPs. A spokeswoman said: “There is no question that we must protect the public from the most dangerous criminals in our society. However, we must also ensure the courts have the power to make the right response to stop people committing crime.”