Languishing behind bars, deprived of hope

by
13 October 2017

There are thousands in prison on indeterminate sentences. It is time to speak out, says Jane Newsome

PA

TWO years ago, I retired as managing chaplain in a prison for young offenders. Some of the young men I worked with were serving Indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences, whose tariff had already expired when I retired. They remain in prison, not knowing when they will be released.

These sentences were introduced in 2005 by the Home Secretary at that time, David Blunkett, to deal with offenders who had committed violent crimes. The idea was that offenders would be given a tariff, after which their case for release could be considered by the Parole Board, but that they would be kept in prison until it was deemed safe to release them.

On release, they would be closely supervised, and, if it was deemed that they had breached the terms of their release, they would be returned to prison immediately. It was a life sentence in all but name.

 

THE IPP sentence was flawed from the beginning. It was over-used: far too many offenders received the sentence, many of them inappropriately. There was not the infrastructure to support the sentence: there were too few of the Offending Behaviour courses that offenders were required to complete to convince the Parole Board that they had changed, and too few trained staff to support IPP prisoners through their sentences; and parole boards were unable to sit often enough to deal with all the new cases produced by the IPP sentence.

I would also argue that the burden of trying to prove to a parole board that an offender has changed is too great, and that this sentence was based on the mistaken premise that people could be “fixed” by Offending Behaviour courses.

When the IPP sentence was introduced, I was working in a young-offender institution that received young men straight from court. I had to deal with the fallout when, newly sentenced, they received the slip of paper giving them details of their sentence. “Horrified” does not begin to describe the reaction when they saw that their sentence length was 99 years. These young men had heard their tariff length in court — for example, 18 months or two years — but they had not understood that their sentence length was, in fact, indeterminate, and that, to be released, they would need to convince a parole board that they had changed, and were no longer a danger to the public.

Five years later, I joined the chaplaincy team at another young-offender institution. This one housed young men who were serving long sentences. Walking into the chapel on my first Sunday there was like meeting old friends. Many of the young men I had seen receiving their sentence printouts were there, far beyond their tariffs. Sunday by Sunday, they made their way to chapel doing the “prison shuffle”: the walk that prisoners develop which tells you, “I’m not in a rush, because I have no where in particular to go, and time hangs heavily.”

PAPolicy legacy: the former Home Secretary Lord BlunkettPrisoners often asked the chaplains to accompany them to parole hearings. To satisfy the Parole Board that they were safe to be released, or at least to move on to open conditions, they would be required to overcome hurdles: complete a behavioural programme, which was likely to be over-subscribed or unavailable; maintain good behaviour, which, for many, was extremely difficult when, most days, they struggled to keep a lid on their anger at the perceived unfairness of their sentence; and convince the Parole Board that they had changed.

I sat with many young men after they had received their “knock back” from the Parole Board, informing them that they were not yet ready to move on, and that they would have to wait at least another 18 months to try again. No wonder that many resorted to self-harm, or found solace in illegal drugs. Many lives were saved and serious incidents prevented because of the good and intelligent work that sensitive prison officers did with prisoners on IPP sentences.

 

I AM under no illusion that many prisoners serving IPP sentences have committed offences that are often violent and whose details would be repugnant to most people. I absolutely agree that some of them needed a term of imprisonment, both for their own rehabilitation and for the protection of the public. But to deprive people of hope is to damage not only them, but the society to which, if they survive, they will eventually return.

Thankfully, the sentence was abolished in 2012 by another Home Secretary, Ken Clarke, and no one now receives an IPP sentence. There are, however, still more than 3000 prisoners serving IPP sentences, many of them several years over their tariff. Recently, the chairman of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, has recognised their desperate situation, and the need to speed up the process of releasing them. The consequences of these prisoners’ remaining on IPP sentences, both for the country and for the individuals involved, are frightening — not least because each prisoner continues to cost the state upwards of £30,000 a year.

Imagine a young man (because it was young men with whom I dealt) going into prison aged 18, being given an IPP sentence with a tariff of 18 months, and going on to serve 11 years in prison. During that time, he has most certainly missed out on any career prospects; he may well have lost contact with, or have strained relations with, his family; he will probably be homeless; and his mental health will have suffered from the years of hopelessness and frustration.

He will also be institutionalised; so budgeting, buying food, and cooking — and just coping with life outside prison — will be an immense challenge. I remember one young man who, having been released from his IPP sentence after ten years (his original tariff was two years), was physically sick with fear when he was given a travel warrant to make his own way home on the train.

Unless these prisoners are given good practical and emotional support, we are at risk of having 3000 ticking time-bombs released. I fear that the over-stretched Probation Service will not be in a position to offer the sort of help that these prisoners will need.

 

THERE is a vital need here that could be addressed by suitably trained members of congregations acting as mentors, or offering places of safety and welcome. Diocesan Safeguarding Officers will have details of the procedure involved in welcoming ex-offenders and helping them find their place in church.

Many who attend and minister in churches will be aware of the plight of prisoners, and their families, who are living with IPP sentences. Those who are not may well be shocked at the severity and the long-lasting consequences of this badly thought-through piece of legislation.

History will not speak kindly of us if we do not speak up for those whose lives are still on hold, and if we do not support efforts to help those who are trying to rebuild their lives once they are released.

The Revd Jane Newsome is a retired prison chaplain.

 

The Community Chaplaincy Association offers support to prisoners on release and trains volunteer mentors. For more information, visit www.communitychaplaincy.org.uk.

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

The Church Times Podcast, hosted by Tim Wyatt and Ed Thornton, features a mixture of interviews and news analysis. Listen online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.