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Lockdown with no end in view

19 February 2021

For prisoners serving IPP sentences, hope is repeatedly deferred, says David Kirk Beedon


THIS lockdown gives people a taste of what a certain type of prisoner feels, and it resonates profoundly with the lived experience of many men and women serving indeterminate sentences in our prison system.

The theologians Drs Katie Cross, Clare Louise Radford, and Karen O’Donnell wrote in last month’s issue of Practical Theology of the “double bind” that preachers or teachers of faith find themselves in: pastorally and intellectually wanting to offer some theological reflection, to provide solace, while at the same time recognising that the gravity of the situation (now more than 100,000 deaths) should make us all pause about coming to a quick, easy and “Pollyanna” resolution.

Canon Angela Tilby’s description of accidie as “listless boredom . . . both pressured and without boundaries” (Comment, 22 January) echoes these theologians’ recognition of themselves as being “caught between overexertion in the busy-ness of work and restless inactivity in experiences of grief, chronic illness, and being overwhelmed”.

This is particularly true for those held under the terms of a sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). About 2000 people in custody are still serving this sentence, which was abolished nine years ago because of its inherent injustices. They were given a “minimum tariff”: an amount of time to serve before they were considered for release. After that period, they had to convince a Parole Board that their risk of reoffending was manageable in the community.

In the general prison population, about 90 per cent of those in custody serve only half their sentence behind bars; the rest of it is served under the supervision of the Probation Service in the community. In contrast, more than 90 per cent of IPP people in custody have served the whole of their “minimum tariff” and are now being held for crimes that they might commit in the future.

Those who have seen the 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report (20th Century Fox) will recall a similar theme of incarceration for future crimes as yet uncommitted. But this is no fiction — scientific or otherwise — for the thousands of people who received an IPP sentence. It is their lived experience.


I WAS introduced to the lived experience of a group of men serving an IPP sentence during two years of prison-based research fieldwork (Comment, 9 August 2019). This exposed to me the despair inherent in indeterminacy.

The texture of incarcerated time is different to that usually experienced by those at liberty, although a national lockdown has given us more of a sense of what it might feel like. The disruption of time which loss of liberty brings is exacerbated by indeterminacy. A person on a determinate sentence knows that each sunrise brings them a day closer to release. For an IPP sentenced person, it is another day when an infringement of prison rules could add extra months or years to their incarcerated time.

Almost all people serving an IPP sentence have been to numerous parole boards, receiving frequent “knock-backs”, which, each time, sediment more frustration, anger, and hopelessness into their being.

The writer of Proverbs observed: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13.12). This ancient wisdom highlights that hope enriches and despair diminishes humanity. As Canon Tilby points out: “Deprivation of desire is exactly what lockdown sadness feels like. I have in some sense lost agency: that unthinking ability to plan and to do. Life has shrivelled.” This is a perfect description of the daily plight of those serving an IPP sentence, even before the additional constraints which a pandemic lockdown has introduced into the prison system.

Many campaigning organisations, such as the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League, have pressed for a quick and just end to this cruel and unusual punishment — so far, to no avail. The United Group for Reform of IPP is a coalition of people seeking to keep an often forgotten or ignored body of men and women in the public consciousness. But there is little political will to address what Lord Brown, a former Supreme Court judge, called “the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system”. So, this shameful sentence continues to hold men and women under its humanity-diminishing terms.


AS WE enter our second lockdown Lent, and ponder the temporal dislocations that most of us are suffering, spare a prayer for those serving an IPP sentence. As we reflect on the mystery of the incarnational work wrought through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us recall that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10).

This calls us to acknowledge and address those injustices that diminish human life, wherever they may be. These are not always the headline-news-story type of injustice: the injustice that is IPP is one that is right on our doorstep, but it is hidden from public view behind high walls and political indifference.


The Revd Dr David Kirk Beedon is a prison chaplain serving at HM Prison Stafford, with a research interest in the pastoral care of those serving indeterminate sentences.

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