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The Next Big Injustice Scandal? Allegations of ‘Blood on Government’s Hands’ as Thousands of Prisoners Remain Locked Up Despite Serving Time

These are enough people still locked up who’ve served their sentences to fill four UK prisons, according to new figures

Photo: Jack Sullivan/Alamy

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Almost 3,000 people are victims of “one of the worst systematic errors of justice” of the past 50 years, as they are still held behind bars in UK prisons despite having finished their sentences – in many cases over a decade ago. 

The new data from the Ministry of Justice shows that 2,852  people given ‘Imprisonment for Public Protection’ (IPP) sentences, described as the “single greatest stain”  on the UK’s criminal justice system, are still in prison today, despite this type of indefinite sentence being abolished in 2012.

Hundreds have now died while serving beyond their sentences, according to reform think tank the Institute of Now (IoN), with the group dubbing it “one of the most lethal” scandals – “destroying the lives of thousands; unnecessarily filling prisons; costing taxpayers billions; and breaching British values and standards of law.”

IPP was introduced in England and Wales in 2003, as part of the Criminal Justice Act, originally intended to protect the public from dangerous offenders whose crimes did not merit a life sentence. IPP offenders at that time were given indeterminate sentences with a minimum term to serve, after which they could be considered for release by The Parole Board.

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However, IPP was overused and eventually handed out to almost ten times the expected number, many of whom were guilty of very minor crimes. As a result, the sentence was ‘abolished’ in 2012.

Yet the abolition was not made retrospective – meaning that all existing IPPs were still subject to their sentence and thousands remained in prison. Due to the difficulty for IPP prisoners to satisfy terms to be released and notoriously overbearing recall conditions, thousands of IPP prisoners have remained locked up after serving their sentences.

Mass Scale

Of the 2,852 of the IPP victims still in prison today, 1,227 of these have never been released on licence, and more than half of these have served 10 years over their original sentence, with some serving multiples of their original minimum term.

These are enough IPP prisoners to fill more than four average-size UK prisons, according to the IoN analysis. 

Adding up the number of years spent by IPPs beyond their minimum term, it equates to over 10,000 years – equivalent to a cost of £500 million to the UK taxpayer, but far more than that in the personal loss to prisoners and their families. 

With so many in prison now beyond their minimum terms with low prospects of release, the cost of these ‘overspent’ years is estimated to increase to over £1billion by 2028.

As an example, one current IPP victim is Thomas White. He was sentenced in 2012 – just months before IPP was abolished – for stealing a mobile phone and has never been released from prison. In 12 years, Thomas has only met his son, Kayden once, and he has spent much of this time in solitary confinement. 

White’s sister, Clara – like Kayden and many family members of people given IPPs – has suffered severe emotional strain, witnessing her brother’s mental health deteriorate over the years under the strain of an open-ended sentence with no clear route for release, according to the Institute of Now. 

The organisation says that as a result of his continued imprisonment, he has developed psychosis, borderline personality disorder, and ADHD. His sister says this is a failure of the state to put right a gross miscarriage of justice: “The saddest thing for IPP families on the outside is that we trusted the Government – they had a duty of care. They had a duty of care to look after my brother and they didn’t, they failed him.”

At least 88 people given IPPs have already committed suicide in prison, with the number feared to be much higher, due to the difficulty of recording how many have killed themselves while on licence in the community, the IoN claims. 1,600 additional instances of self-harm by IPP prisoners were recorded in the past 12 months alone.

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High Profile Opponents

The sentences have faced overwhelming cross-party criticism, but with little signs of action so far.

David Blunkett, the former New Labour Home Secretary responsible for implementing the policy in 2003, is one of many voices from across the political divide calling on the Government to fix what he called an “unjust” and “immoral” sentence , speaking to a Parliament committee in 2021. International actors are also urging the UK to fix the IPP cycle of suffering – UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Alice Edwards described the policy as “inhuman” and “degrading” , in a public statement in 2023.

In 2017 – before becoming the UK Secretary of State for Justice – Alex Chalk KC described IPPs as “unconscionable” and “one of the greatest stains” on the British justice system. He suggested the Government had “blood on its hands” in failing to end the system. 

Yet critics say he has become the latest in a line of ten justice ministers who have ignored expert advice on how to solve the IPP crisis, including rejecting strong recommendations by a House of Commons Justice Committee Inquiry in 2023 to review IPP sentences.

And former Conservative PM Sir John Major told an audience at the Old Bailey in May 2023: “When [IPP] was abolished, no action was taken to determine a just and definitive sentence for the prisoners already serving for an indeterminate time. This was an extraordinary omission.”

Lord Brown of Eaton-Under-Heywood, Former Supreme Court Justice, writing in a foreword to a report on the impact on those recalled under IPP in March 2020: “I have no hesitation in describing the continuing aftermath of the ill-starred IPP sentencing regime as the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system.”

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Rory Stewart, the former UK Minister of State for Prisons, also told his Rest is Politics podcast in December IPPs are “fundamentally inhuman and completely in contravention of the way the law should work.”

Henry Rossi, a human rights campaigner and Founder of The Institute of Now, which is committed to abolishing IPP, said: “IPP is a systematic error and a form of state violence which has no place in a modern society. Far too many people, both prisoners and their families, have been subjected to psychological torture from this wicked sentence, which in so many cases, has led to suicides. 

“Prisons are not the place to manage those that have served their time as punishment. The UK has blood on its hands and the government must urgently relook at this draconian sentence and release post-tariff IPP prisoners with the appropriate support.”

Hamid Sabi, a London-based human rights lawyer who has served on the Iran Tribunal, China Tribunal, and the Uyghur Tribunal, added: “Political inertia and lack of focus has to date stifled any chance of reform to IPP, as successive governments – despite acknowledging IPP as a mistake – have demonstrated wilful blindness and disproportionate risk aversion when faced with the issue. The UK faces a mass public shaming on the world stage if this issue is not urgently addressed.”

Ministry Pushback

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the Government had reduced the number of unreleased IPP prisoners by three-quarters since new IPP sentences were scrapped in 2012. The MoJ added there had been a 12% in the last year alone “where the Parole Board deemed prisoners safe to release.”

The MoJ spokesperson added: “We have also taken decisive action to curtail licence periods and continue to help those still in custody to progress towards release, including improving access to rehabilitation programmes and mental health support.”

The ministry disputes the notion that the costs of keeping the remaining IPP prisoners in custody is “unnecessary”. 

And officials played down comments from the Lord Chancellor describing the sentence as a “stain on our justice system” – claiming the mechanism is important for public protection. People serving an IPP sentence in prison, whether not yet released or recalled following release, can only be released when the Parole Board deems them safe. 

The MoJ claims “all but a small minority” of these prisoners have had at least one parole hearing to demonstrate they are safe for release and have not done so.

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The Government claims that “retrospectively changing the sentence which was lawfully passed poses a risk to public protection”. This is despite ministers currently pushing through legislation to overturn nearly all the Horizon Post Office scandal convictions retrospectively. 

And the ministry pointed to a  HM Inspectorate of Probation review of IPP last December they said found that the probation service is making “proportionate and necessary” decisions to recall IPP offenders on licence for public protection.  

As of 31 December 2023, there were 1,227 prisoners on IPP sentences who had never been released. There were around 6,000 when the sentence was abolished in 2012. 

Justice officials say the Government has proposed new laws which will mean offenders are automatically referred to the Parole Board three years after their first release, for the Board to consider if their ongoing licence should be terminated, and ending their sentence. However, it is not clear when this legislation will be implemented.

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