It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it

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Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

recently visited ‘M’, a serving prisoner, who has applied to join Walk when he is released early next year. He looks like a strong candidate.


A digression.

e’ll leave M. sitting in an interview room in the prison Resettlement Department for a little while. Please bear with me.

The Labour government of Tony Blair, in the first decade of this century, famously wanted to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. They introduced a nationally coordinated system of ‘evidence-based’ interventions in an attempt to address the reasons why offenders offend. The system was very far from perfect, but it was somewhat effective; they were trying to be ‘tough on the causes of crime’ in a systematic way that hadn’t been attempted before in the UK.

The ‘tough on crime’ bit showed up as a nasty thing called the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP), introduced in 2006. It was intended for prolific violent and sexual offenders, ‘to get them off the streets.’

So, a person with an offending past commits a violent offence and is sent to prison. But rather than being given a fixed-term sentence, they are given a minimum term or ‘tariff’ and a ‘life’ licence. Even after release, their sentence continues for the rest of their life.

Effectively, it was a life sentence.

There were (and still are) several particular problems.

First, especially in the early years, the offender rarely understood the sentence they had been given. They heard ‘two years’; they thought they would go in front of a parole board and be released after that time. This was almost never true.

Thus, the second problem.

In order to be eligible for release, IPP prisoners had to demonstrate that they were no longer a threat to the public. This was almost impossible to do, but it was where the ‘evidence-based’ interventions came in.

Those who demonstrated impulsive violence were put on anger management courses; prolific offenders were given cognitive skills interventions to address their poor decision-making; people with substance or alcohol dependency were treated for this, and sex offenders were put on specially developed programmes.

But, for the system to even have a chance of working, these interventions had to be available to the relevant candidates. Since the financial crash, and especially since the first Cameron government in 2010, prisons have seen a 20% cut in funding across the board. Staffing was reduced; programmes were suspended; rehabilitative work was cut.

So, the interventions supposed to target offending behaviours were increasingly unavailable; prisoners were sometimes moved from prison to prison to get on the waiting list for a prescribed course, only for it to be withdrawn.

Which leads to the third problem.

Release was granted to IPP prisoners on the grounds that their risk of reconviction had been reduced. When the risk was deemed low enough, they were eligible for release.

Most people, including most of the people in prison for serious offences, understand the concept of being punished for crimes they have committed. They may or may not admit their guilt, and they might sometimes contest the sentence, but there is a clear connection. Serving two years for assaulting someone and causing injury seems at least rational.

It’s much harder to understand and accept being punished, not for what you have done in the past, but for what someone like you might do in the future, according to a calculation of probability.

This is the whole basis of an ‘indeterminate sentence for public protection’. Offenders are locked up indefinitely until they can reach a notional target or ‘safety’ that they can’t see and, which, in any case, keeps moving.

The IPP sentence was abolished in 2012, but it has cast a long shadow.

After 2012, no new IPP sentences have been passed, but about 8,000 were issued, at that time about 10% of the prison population. They were only intended to be prolific violent and sexual offenders but were applied more widely than this.

The fourth problem

The longer a person spends in prison with no realistic hope of release, the more their motivation and mental health deteriorates, and the less they will be susceptible to rehabilitation. They become psychologically dependent on the prison regime, disillusioned and angry. If they had a partner or supportive family before they were imprisoned — and many didn’t — those relationships have often been strained to breaking point.

Then they go before the parole board to be rejected again.

The horror inflicted by the perceived never-ending nature of IPP was acknowledged by the government’s decision to scrap their use in 2011. The scheme was applied far more widely than intended, with some IPP sentences issued to offenders who committed low-level crimes. [ref]

Then, finally, the parole board does indeed recommend release, and here is the fifth problem.

The indeterminate sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) was abolished in 2012, some seven years ago. However, the legal situation of the 8,000 individuals sentenced to IPP before its repeal was not altered. While many have now been released on licence, approximately 3,400 IPP prisoners remain incarcerated: some 2,200 who have never been released and a further 1,200 who have been recalled to prison. [ref]

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Image by Лечение Наркомании from Pixabay

A disproportionately high number of IPP prisoners are recalled after release. A few of these recalls are for committing further offences, but most are for licence breaches — in other words, they are for more or less technical infringements.

The problem is that, although the IPP sentence was unjust — even cruel — many of the people who received it were, indeed, dangerous. They were violent, sometimes sexual, offenders who were often struggling themselves with complex issues that have not gone away. They don’t manage life well. Their sentences should have been commuted to fixed terms with a release date far enough away to allow for proper rehabilitative and resettlement work to be done. But what usually happens is that, after a long period of hopeless incarceration, they are released at short notice, perhaps to a probation hostel.


start the interview. We need to clarify a few details before we start.

M. presents himself well. He is clean, neatly dressed and articulate. He has a responsible job in the prison as an orderly. But he is in the twelfth year of a two-year IPP sentence on his third recall.

Typically, he’ll spend a month or two in a probation hostel or a rehab unit and he’ll do well. Then he’ll move on to supported accommodation and his life quickly spirals. He’ll fall out with someone (a friend, girlfriend or family member), drink, drink some more, take some drugs, and find himself back in prison again.

His drugs support worker in prison suggested Walk, and he applied to come to us. I suspect that he’s not being quite candid about a couple of points, but I don’t push it; he is happy for us to request a full risk assessment from the prison. He signs the disclosure agreement. He seems like a good candidate; my colleague agrees.

He wants to know if we can help him. I tell him that he can provide him with structure, accountability and a sense of purpose; we can help him get a job. I tell him that we’ll challenge him often. These things will help (his drugs worker, sitting in the corner, is nodding).

In the end, it will come down to him. He will need to be determined, focused. We can’t ‘fix’ anyone but can create opportunities.

There are no easy or quick fixes.

We’ll wait for the report from the prison, then, all being well, we’ll see him in a couple of months.

Writer. Christian. Worship Leader. Working with released prisoners.

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