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The Moral Problem of the Imprisonment for Public Protection Scheme

The ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’ [IPP] scheme is a now-abolished policy by the UK Government which was described as “an indeterminate sentence targeted at serious offenders who were thought to pose an ongoing risk to public safety but didn’t merit a life sentence”. Research by the United Nations outlines how “between 2005-2012, English and Welsh courts used the IPP legislation to issue indeterminate sentences to those deemed likely to cause serious public harm ‘until they no longer represented such a risk’”. In addition, once released from prison, IPP prisoners are eligible to be returned for detention any time within 10 years for breaches of their licence.

When first introduced, IPP sentences were “mandatory in all cases of conviction for ‘a serious offence’”. However, this definition was vague, including over 50 specified crimes. As a result, 8711 people were sentenced under the scheme - almost 10x higher than the anticipated figure of 900. Ultimately, the scheme imprisoned far more people than the government had the resources for, creating long-term issues in terms of rehabilitation and reintegration back into society. Thus meaning some 2926 legacy prisoners remain under the scheme who have never been resentenced, despite the IPP scheme being scrapped over a decade ago.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the failed IPP scheme extends far beyond the 2926 legacy prisoners. UN torture expert, Alice Jill Edwards, has criticised the IPP scheme for causing “significant psychological distress” on inmates, such as: increased instances of self-harm and 65 cases of suicide (2021 data). Hence, it has been estimated that “IPP prisoners are reportedly around 2.5x more susceptible to self-harm than the general population” - a major issue which needs addressing.

This acknowledgement of the disastrous impact of the IPP scheme is further reinforced by Alex Chalk MP, Minister of Justice, who has referred to the now-abolished scheme as “a stain on our justice system” - a contrasting view to his predecessors. A view agreed with by David Blunkett - former Labour Home Secretary - who introduced the IPP scheme. However, transformative action in favour of IPP prisoners is yet to be proposed.

It is impossible to overstate the negative consequences of the IPP scheme on prisoner mental health. The elevated instances of suicide and self-harm provides just one outcome of a much larger mental health problem. Edwards labels the IPP scheme as “inhuman and degrading” with minimal access to rehabilitation programmes, due to a lack of resources and higher than expected imprisonment under the IPP scheme, preventing prisoners from demonstrating their risk reduction to the public. These conclusions are reflected in a report by the Justice Select Committee, chaired by Sir Bob Neill MP - hearing evidence that IPP offenders are “institutionalised, usually have complex mental health needs and have lost faith in the very system that is supposed to help rehabilitate them”.

There are a plethora of examples whereby sentences under the IPP scheme have violated human rights. To allude to just a few instances which were uncovered by The Guardian newspaper, a defendant received “an IPP sentence with a minimum term of 28 days which was extended indefinitely”. In addition, another defendant “served 12 years after being imprisoned with a tariff of two years for stealing a bicycle” before being moved into a mental health institution. Ultimately, of all unreleased IPP prisoners, “51% have been held for at least 10 years” - signifying the urgent need to resentence these people who were imprisoned under a scheme which was never fit for purpose.

Fundamentally, there is only one solution to this grave injustice: resentencing everyone who was imprisoned under the IPP scheme. This view has been reinforced by a number of experts too. The Justice Select Committee’s inquiry emphasised the need to resentence the almost 3000 IPP prisoners - although this was rejected by the UK government. Moreover, Shirley Debono, founder of the group IPP Committee in Action, argues “they [the Government] need to resentence them [IPP prisoners], it’s the only thing that’s going to fix it”.

The government’s reluctance to resentence IPP prisoners is based on a fear that it may potentially lead to the “immediate release of offenders who were previously assessed as unsafe for release by the Parole Board”. However, such an argument is incredibly flawed. Many IPP prisoners have never had an opportunity to access rehabilitation initiatives due to a lack of government funding. Thus, forcing IPP prisoners to become stuck in a system without ever having a chance to demonstrate their rehabilitated behaviour. By refusing to grant necessary funds for IPP prisoners to prove their rehabilitation, the government is indirectly feeding into the negative mental health consequences of suicide and self-harm caused by the abolished IPP scheme.

If the IPP scheme was scrapped over a decade ago, why is it acceptable to keep people imprisoned under IPP terms without resentencing, 11 years later?

Instead, the government has hinted at easing the rules surrounding the timeframe in which released IPP prisoners can be recalled to prison from 10 years to 5 years. Despite being a positive step forward, it doesn’t eradicate the issue. IPP prisoners could still be recalled at any moment during that 5 year period and the lack of resentencing extends the hypocrisy about the scheme being abolished for their inhumane nature but sentences given under the scheme remaining seemingly valid.

To conclude, people imprisoned under the IPP scheme deserve resentencing to liberate themselves of the potential of being returned to prison for minor breaches of their licence. In addition, there is a valid debate to be had over reparations. Edwards highlighted that IPP prisoners should receive “adequate and appropriate reparations for the distress, depression and anxiety caused by the scheme on prisoners and their families”.


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