no escape

The mental torture of Britain's forgotten prisoners

26th November 2019

Shaun Lloyd has been in prison for more than a decade and still doesn’t have a release date. His crime? Stealing a mobile phone.

It was a mistake when he was 18, but Lloyd didn’t realise when he was given a two-year, nine-month tariff in 2006 that he would still be paying for it 13 years on. 

It was only as he neared release, and when what should have been a routine parole hearing was rejected, that problems started to appear. His mother Shirley Debono remembers researching his sentence and coming to the conclusion that her son had effectively been “given a life sentence through the backdoor”.

It took eight years for Lloyd to be released the first time but now, despite not committing another crime, three recalls mean he is still waiting for a release date.

📷 Remy Steinegger

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences seem like a simple premise — convicted criminals have to prove they’re no longer a risk to the public before the parole board will grant a release. But the problem with such a simple idea was there was no way of ensuring it scaled up. Instead, it became another burden on the already stretched justice system.

Introduced in 2005 as part of Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” strategy, IPPs were never properly explained. Those convicted rarely understood what they were getting because often judges seemed similarly confused. In the case of Ian Hartley, he was called back to court three days after sentencing because the judge needed to explain just what he’d handed down.

The sentences were only ever intended for 1,000 of the most dangerous prisoners — sex offenders, especially — but within seven years that number had neared 10,000, including those who committed more minor crimes, such as robbery. 

Whether the judges thought the sentences would be beneficial, purely punitive or just a way of leaving the decision to someone else, the system soon became unsustainable. 

Every day you wake up and you don’t know if you’re one day closer from being released

In a 2012 European Court of Human Rights ruling, judges said the sentence was unlawful because the prisoners who brought the case had “no realistic chance” of accessing the courses they needed before they could apply for release. 

But even today, seven years after the sentences were abolished, a Freedom of Information request by The Overtake found there is still a blockage in the system. As of June 2019, there are still 3,400 people with IPP sentences in the prison system, with a further 6,000 still affected by conditions. The FOI request also found 2,136 of those prisoners are still in detention beyond their original tariff and have never been recalled. 

With 1,114 prisoners being recalled, it leaves only 179 prisoners still serving the term given by a judge. The thousands of others are facing a battle for release, with problems such as drug addiction and mental health problems only becoming more entrenched as their time in prison continues.

To illustrate the backlog that prisoners who have served their time are fighting against, in 2017 the Yorkshire Post found 213 prisoners in Yorkshire had served their tariff. This prompted MPs including shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon to insist on an  “urgent review” of the system. Two years on, we found that number had only marginally dropped to 201. 

So where does this stalemate leave the prisoners waiting for release?

One former IPP prisoner says the sentence takes a huge toll on those still in prison. “Every day you wake up and you don’t know if you’re one day closer from being released, and that has a detrimental effect on your mental health.”

Paul Taylor remembers being told that if he reached his tariff and worked with the parole board then it wouldn’t be too different to a normal sentence, “but as the years tick down you notice the bullshit”. His eight-year sentence would normally mean he’d be eligible for parole after four, but even those in the system knew this was never going to be the case.

I’ve served three times my sentence. Apart from blood, I can’t give more

“There was one officer who said, ‘Paul, you’re going to do about ten years.’ It wasn’t far off that the first time.”

Like most accounts from IPP prisoners, Taylor accepts his original tariff, but how it continues to punish means that for himself and many, it’s counter-productive to rehabilitation. “That sentence didn’t change me whatsoever,” he adds, “It’s just over time, I’ve just grown up.” 

With every parole board hearing being based upon what someone might do, often based on factors that prisoners can’t change — like previous convictions — it’s difficult to see how the system actually encourages anyone to engage with it. Taylor asks, “How are these people supposed to have a positive outlook when they’ve spent the past 12 years being told all the negative stuff?”

nobody wants to give them a chance

One point of frustration is having to prove he would be safe for release and then still having to live under conditions on release, he says. “I’ve served three times my sentence. Apart from blood, I can’t give more.”

Taylor, like many IPP inmates, suffered from his own mental health problems in prison, especially after finding other inmates had committed suicide after struggling with the sentence. It means he worries there could be a “massive epidemic” of prisoners with mental health problems coming in the future. 

Without enough support in place, if the system suddenly rushes to get through the waiting lists, it might not be as easy of a solution as it seems. “My biggest fear is the people now being released have some sort of issue, and the likelihood is they’re going to fuck up somewhere — whether that’s using drugs, drinking or missing appointments — and then that reflects back on those still stuck in prison because nobody wants to give them a chance.”

You go to them for help and they recall you

Whether the parole board start making headway and releasing people without enough support in place, or the system continues slowly as it is, there seems to be no way out of this problem.  Taylor  adds that on top of the other problems inside the system, there seems to be no appetite to fix anything. “Everyone’s fascinated with prison, but no one really wants to know.”  

For many, the problems from time in prison only come to the surface after release. As part of the sentence, the IPP conditions remain in place for a decade without recall, but there are concerns that recalls are often knee-jerk reactions. Taylor’s three recalls have been for not informing probation that he was staying out at night. “It’s like you’re a kid again and have to ask your parents for permission. I’m 35 years old and I can’t even stay at a partner’s for one night.” 

One of those recalls was after he tried to help his partner with his newborn child but couldn’t get a message to probation in time. It’s what Taylor calls an “impossible fight” and something he’s had to learn to accept, however frustrating that is.

Shaun Lloyd is another of those who has had problems with probation after release. His mother Shirley Debono has become a vocal campaigner against the sentences, and her experience is strikingly similar to Taylor’s. 

“Since he has been released [in February 2014] he’s been recalled three times, and not once for committing a crime,” Debono tells the Overtake. “You go to them for help and they recall you.”

Often these problems are a result of not wanting to ask for help while in prison, for risk of extending their sentences. For example, a prisoner who needed help with depression would potentially be enrolled in more courses that would set their parole back, so may try to deal with those themselves.

It will always be hanging over his head. He knows he won’t be free

In Lloyd’s case, after struggling with addiction in prison, he asked for help after release and was immediately recalled.    

While in prison he was prescribed methadone, something Debono believes was a solution for many others inside but only made his problem worse.

“He wasn’t addicted to heroin on the outside, but they put him on methadone and he still takes it today.” During this recall, he started on 20mg but within six months that had gone up to 40mg, which worries Debono. “The mephs go up, they don’t come down. It seems like [the prisoners] are trained to fail.”

Debono says ahead of his first recall, Lloyd absconded out of fear of a return to prison, but he had stopped using the drugs and “he looked better. He didn’t look like he was dying in front of my eyes.” But despite his protests, he was put back onto methadone or he would be seen as not complying with probation. “They just don’t listen. They don’t have the funding [to send him to a rehabilitation centre],” she adds. “If you’re not an IPP prisoner they can’t put you in prison because it’s not a crime addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or gambling. It’s all a health issue.

📷 Bill Nichols

“If only they didn’t recall Shaun when they did. We were on the verge of getting help as a family, and they took all that away from him.” 

While he has another parole hearing in October, Debono knows it won’t solve anything on its own. As well as the conditions, other simple things such as applying for jobs have become more difficult, as he will need to explain to employers why he’s spent more than a decade in prison, despite his offence being relatively minor. 

“It will always be hanging over his head. He knows he won’t be free [when on release],” Debono says. “That’s when the sentence starts again.”

It’s not lost on anyone that, like much of the justice system, the punishments seem discriminatory and disproportionate. “If you were a young lad from Oxford and committed the same crime as someone on a council estate, the one on the council estate would be seen as a danger to the public. If you came from Oxford and your parents have money, that kid would not get an IPP.”

Sarah Smart’s report for The Griffin’s Society focussed on an even less-represented group of IPP prisoners — women going through the sentence. Although the numbers are small, Smart believes it was worth studying because as “a minority within a minority [they] are often voiceless and lost”. There are also the less-considered parts of the justice system, such as how fewer female prisoners means the prisons themselves are more remote — potentially meaning they’re going through all the problems the sentence causes, without much family support. 

I’m afraid of getting out and I’m afraid of staying in

The report, published in March, was the first study into women with the sentence, but there were a lot of similarities in her experience and those of the people we spoke to. 

Smart calls the IPP sentence a “Kafkaesque nightmare” that is “undoubtedly counter-productive”. The criminologist adds that, even if the prisoners don’t dispute that they should have been sent to prison, there’s still a sense of injustice. “All the women I spoke to talked about seeing women who had done far worse things than them — murder, particularly of children, for example — getting out before them.” 

Rather than aiding rehabilitation, extended stints in prison instead “gives rise to profound institutionalisation and fear”. Smart quotes one of those interviewed: “I’m afraid of getting out and I’m afraid of staying in.”

It wasn’t an unwillingness to engage that held women back, it was more that the system just wasn’t able to support them. The women found that CBT and long-term psychotherapy were especially beneficial, but she was cautious that it’s the “holistic, trauma-informed, long-term specialist help” that was necessary to aid rehabilitation, not just the behavioural courses alone. 

There were other problems in the system that prevented release. Smart found cases where hearings had to be adjourned because reports hadn’t been completed or staff didn’t have necessary details. She adds, “One of the key findings for me was the sense of hypocrisy the women felt when professionals were not held to account by parole boards or the prison governor for poor standards.” The delays risk affecting a prisoner’s chance of release through no fault of their own and could set off a chain of destabilising factors.

But with problems so deeply embedded into the system, how can it be fixed at this stage?

Smart believes “prisons should recognise the extraordinary and peculiar complexity of serving an IPP sentence”. “There should be a national framework for bringing progression and training professionals, and each prison should have a designated, specialist IPP contact point,” she says.

cannot believe such a sentence exists in our criminal justice system

When asked if there’s any appetite for the changes, she believes, cautiously, there is. She mentions politicians on all sides who are aware and appalled by the sentences, and hopes more will join them. “What is clear to me is that anyone you tell about IPPs finds them quite extraordinary and cannot believe such a sentence exists in our criminal justice system.”

Debono is among those who have been essential in raising the public’s awareness. Her campaign has attracted cross-party support, and she hopes to deliver her petition to the Ministry of Justice once it reaches 50,000 signatures. One of those who has pledged support is Lord Blunkett, the former justice secretary who both Debono and Smart believe is genuinely apologetic for implementing the sentence. 

These are people’s brothers and partners. They will make mistakes, but you can’t keep whacking them over the head with it

While such reforms would likely be slow, Taylor is hoping that he can work to change perceptions of ex-prisoners in the short-term. 

Recently he created an online group that raises awareness of IPP cases and provides a place for those to ask for advice from those who have also gone through a similar situation. But he also wants to put something in place to reskill those who have been released. 

“These are people’s brothers and partners. They will make mistakes, but you can’t keep whacking them over the head with it.” Even if he can’t see these institutions finding a quick fix, he’s hopeful about the people within them. “They need to have a chance to grow and change.”

26th November 2019