Exclusive: VICE News Investigates the UK’s 4,500 Prisoners Doing Life for Minor Crimes

Thousands of prisoners — many of who committed relatively minor crimes — are stuck in British jails on an obsolete life sentence at an annual cost to the UK taxpayer of more than 119 million pounds ($180 million), a VICE News investigation has found.

Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) were introduced 10 years ago to keep criminals behind bars until they were no longer deemed a risk to the public, but where their crimes did not warrant a fixed life sentence.

They were scrapped in 2012 after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke admitted they were “unclear, inconsistent and have been used far more than ever intended” — but nothing was done to address the thousands already in prison on a seemingly never-ending sentence.

In an exclusive investigation, VICE News has uncovered the legacy of the IPP sentence. We spoke to prisoners, former prisoners, family members, lawyers, and a former judge, analyzed government data and prison inspection reports, and issued a raft of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We found:

  • There are 4,612 IPP prisoners remaining in jail three years after the sentences were abolished and not a single one has a set release date.
  • Although they were designed for the most dangerous offenders, IPP sentences were given out for relatively minor crimes including affray (fighting in public), minor criminal damage worth less than 20 pounds, and shoplifting.
  • Rehabilitation courses prisoners must complete to be released are frequently unavailable.
  • Sixteen IPP prisoners have killed themselves since the sentence was abolished and inmates sentenced to IPPs have a higher suicide rate overall.
  • Once released from jail, IPP prisoners can spend their life on probation. Since 2012, more than 50 percent of those released have already been recalled.
  • Each year it costs the government at least 119 million pounds to house IPP prisoners who have completed their mandatory minimum sentence.

Now, a retired judge and 10-year veteran of the UK’s Parole Board has called on the justice secretary to release IPP inmates who have served their recommended term.

After seven years in practice, the controversial sentences were abolished in 2012 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that prisoners had the right to know how long they were being held for. UK courts stopped handing out the sentences, but the ban did nothing to impact those already serving an IPP.

Trapped in the System
VICE News found that, three years after the sentences were abolished, more than three quarters of the 4,612 IPP prisoners still stuck in the system have passed the minimum term set by the court. More than 200 have been in prison for nearly a decade — despite being given a minimum sentence of less than two years.

IPP sentences were introduced to deal with serious and prolific offenders. The original legislation meant that they applied to 153 specified offenses, but our investigation found that they were handed out far more widely than ever intended.

The few hundred sentences that were expected snowballed into judges handing down 8,701 IPP sentences in just seven years — some for crimes far less serious than those specified in the original legislation.

We also found that these extreme sentences were issued for offenses as minor as affray and shoplifting. As many as 225 people received one for assault occasioning actual bodily harm — a charge which today carries a maximum jail term of five years. One person was given an IPP for “causing damage to an allotment.”

A handful of people are still in prison on IPPs for “summary motoring offenses” — driving offenses so minor they could be tried in the magistrates’ courts without a jury.

In the UK prisoners with good behavior can often hope to serve half their recommended term, meaning even those on a mandatory life sentence for murder could be released in as little as seven-and-a-half years. A guilty plea can also reduce sentence length. But VICE News has found some IPP prisoners have spent a decade inside for crimes described as “criminal damage and arson,” or robbery.

The situation has been exacerbated by budget cutbacks to prisons, probation, and the Parole Board, resulting in IPP prisoners becoming trapped in the system.

John Samuels QC is a recently retired judge who sat on the Parole Board for 10 years, and has been unable to talk publicly about the IPP fiasco until now. Speaking exclusively to VICE News, he said that IPP prisoners who have completed their recommended sentence should be released.

“Far more could be done, I have no doubt at all, in ensuring the safety of the public, by releasing those tariff-expired IPP sentences and supervising them effectively in the community, which would be cheaper and public safety would not be compromised,” said Samuels.

“We’ve got a whole series of people who were caught up in indeterminate sentences who posed no danger to anyone — let alone society at large — and who are saddled with a need to remain in custody almost indefinitely.”

But despite the ban on handing out IPP sentences, the situation is becoming progressively worse for those stuck inside.

Watch the VICE News documentary, UK’s Forgotten Prisoners here

Catch-22
In a “greasy spoon” cafe in Plymouth, southwest England, Michael Hood, 27, is showing off the many tattoos that adorn his body. They are the product of seven years spent in prison on an IPP. When he was 20, Hood was convicted of GBH with intent and was given an IPP sentence with a recommendation that he serve at least three years. Seven years later he was still in prison.

“At first I didn’t really know what it was, then [other inmates] said ‘Mate you just got a life sentence.’ I said ‘Nah I’ll do three years’ and they were like ‘No mate, you’ll be doing seven, eight, nine years before you get out of jail’… I was devastated,” he said.

Hood was finally released a few months ago, but it was a struggle to get out.

He reels off the names of the courses he was required to do in a flurry of acronyms “CALM , PASRO, ETS, TSP, ARV,” but maintains, “they’re all the same. All they do is change the names of little things, but if you’ve done one course you can fly through the others.”

But it was not as simple as doing one course after another. Hood was moved to nine different prisons in the space of seven years in order to get him on the right courses, and often faced long waiting lists.

VICE News examined prison inspection reports and used FOI requests to discover that many prisons do not run vital courses that IPP prisoners have been asked to complete. Of the 10 prisons with the highest IPP populations, only one ran the Alcohol Related Violence Program, for example.

At HMP Whatton, the prison that houses the most IPP prisoners, some people are left waiting for 14 months just to get onto one over-subscribed course. At another, HMP Wymott, inspectors found “insufficient places on offending behavior programs and long waiting lists.”

Required courses can also be added to a prisoner’s sentence plan at any time, meaning the goalposts are constantly moving.

“It’s a Catch-22,” explained Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, “if the only way you can demonstrate that you don’t present a risk is to do courses, and the courses aren’t available, or if you maintain your innocence you’re not allowed to do the courses, or if you have mental health need or a learning disability you’re still not allowed to do those courses… then you’re completely stuck.”

To get a release date, IPP prisoners need to persuade a three-member Parole Board panel that they pose no risk to society. Getting a proper hearing is not always easy, however.

Information revealed through FOI requests shows that the number of parole hearings that end up being deferred has almost quadrupled since 2010, even though the total number of hearings has dropped. More than a third of the 5,048 hearings that took place in 2014-15 were deferred. If this happens an application can go to the back of the line meaning a wait of months or even years.

Often the information provided to the Parole Board is inadequate. Many prisons are seriously overcrowded and the number of prison officers has reduced by 25 percent in the last five years.

That has left those responsible for overseeing IPP prisoners struggling. VICE News was shown a letter from an offender manager — the prison officer tasked with reviewing a prisoner’s progress — explaining that huge cuts have left the service overwhelmed and unable to produce behavior reports on time. These reports are relied upon when making decisions about a prisoner’s future.

Samuels, the former judge, retired from the Parole Board on September 30. He told VICE News: “The backlog of cases before the Parole Board is growing all the time. In virtually every case I saw recently the panel was unable to conclude the review at the first hearing, because of deficiencies in what should have been included in the paperwork. So cases are deferred shortly beforehand; or when the hearing takes place there is an adjournment.

“As a result of the Transforming Rehabilitation program, the probation service is in disarray. Prisoners often don’t meet their offender manager until the parole hearing itself, and if they’re lucky they will meet them for the first time over a videolink,” Samuels added.

VICE News calculated that the UK Ministry of Justice could save 119m pounds annually if it released IPP prisoners who have completed their mandatory minimum sentence, based on official estimates for the average annual cost of keeping prisoners in jail. The real figure is likely to be much higher due to the additional cost of rehabilitation courses, Parole Board hearings, and the cost of keeping prisoners on license for at least 10 years.

VICE News found that of all the people released since the IPP sentence was banned in 2012, more than half have been recalled back to prison. In fact, last year alone, 330 IPP prisoners were recalled for breaching their probation — an average of six people a week.

In some cases we found IPP prisoners being released on license only to be recalled for minor infractions of their probation terms. One man received an IPP sentence after being charged with sexual assault for grabbing a woman’s behind in the line at the post office. After he was released he was recalled to prison after returning one night to his hostel drunk. He stayed in jail for 17 months until he could finally see the Parole Board and was released again.

And for some of those stuck in that system the uncertainty becomes too much.

Last year the number of IPPs reported as self-harming was equivalent to 42 percent of the total IPP population. Some go further. VICE News has found that since the sentences were abolished in 2012, at least 16 IPP prisoners have killed themselves while in jail. IPP prisoners are now more likely to die by suicide than prisoners with fixed release dates.

The Future
Legislation introduced in 2012 means that technically the justice secretary has the power to change any IPP sentence to a determinate one. But the Ministry of Justice told VICE News it had no plans to retroactively address the sentences of IPP prisoners, and stated that “the release of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences, imposed by the courts, is entirely a matter for the independent Parole Board.”

If that remains the case, the release of IPP prisoners will continue at a painfully slow rate.

“The Parole Board, along with other agencies within the parole system are working hard to tackle the caseload, particularly demand for oral hearings which has increased considerably following the UK Supreme Court judgment [in 2013],” Glenn Gathercole, head of business development at the Parole Board, told VICE News.

“I’m not saying I didn’t deserve prison, because I did,” added Hood. “What I done weren’t a nice thing. What I didn’t deserve was a sentence with no release date.”

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