02:06, September 15 47 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-15 02:06:03
Thousands of IPP prisoners are trapped in a shameful limbo. They must be freed

In 1997, when Labour came to power, I was in jail, part way through a seven-year sentence. Back then, I had no thoughts of becoming a journalist, but I had more than a little interest in penal reform, so rejoiced when Blair led his party to a landslide victory.

While in opposition, Labour had talked a good fight on putting the prison system to rights. In 1993, when Blair was shadow home secretary, he said: “The purpose of any system of justice should not just be to punish and deter, but also to rehabilitate, for the good of society as well as the criminal. Which is why there are practical reasons, as well as those connected with civil liberties, for reforming our monstrous prison regime.”

Once in power, though, Labour changed its tune. As shadow home secretary, Blair had promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the underlying causes of crime” – but as prime minister, he stayed true only to the first part of that pledge. Thousands of new laws were introduced which increased the prison population by 20,000. Among other things, the Labour government seemed intent on slapping every kid on a deprived estate with an asbo.

But in my book, their worst offence came with the introduction, in 2005, of indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPPs), a scheme dreamed up by David Blunkett. The idea was that high-risk criminals, mainly convicted of violent or sexual offences, would be given a tariff instead of a fixed-term sentence. They could only be released at the end of that tariff if the Parole Board was satisfied they could be managed safely in the community. If not, they stayed put.

As could – and should – have been forecast, the judiciary went beyond the stated remit of IPPs. Between 2005 and 2012, when the sentences were abolished, 8,711 prisoners were given IPPs.

The majority of those had tariffs of four years or less, which in itself showed that the offences were not on the scale of seriousness that IPPs were supposedly brought in for. The plight of James Ward, who has served 11 years in jail after initially being sentenced with an IPP to a minimum of 10 months for arson in 2006, is just the latest case to be highlighted – he is now due to be released. Today, seven years after IPPs were abolished, about 3,300 IPP prisoners remain behind bars, not knowing when they will be released.

This is not because the Parole Board considers them a threat (though some may well be), but because the system simply cannot cope with the logistics of putting these prisoners through the required release process.

Before satisfying the Parole Board, IPP prisoners must complete offending behaviour courses but, even now, many are still waiting to participate in such courses. Not all prisons run the required courses and prisoners can wait months, or years, for transfer to an appropriate jail.

The Prisoners’ Advice Service, which helps many in this situation, tells me that some of their IPP clients experience cognitive difficulties, making it difficult to ever complete the behaviour course. Shockingly, one such female prisoner is eight years over her tariff.

The chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, has only been in post since March last year. He is deeply concerned about the IPP situation and has made progress since he took charge, hearing more cases in less time. This year has seen more IPP prisoners released than any year since they came into being, but he says the situation is still unacceptable and cites the high level of suicide and self-harm among those caught up in this shameful legal limbo.

In the latest issue of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, Hardwick proposes that the rules of this cruel game should be changed. He says that for those with a tariff of two years or less, the onus should be on the state to prove they are likely to commit another offence, rather than on the prisoner to show that they are not.

Hardwick, the former chief inspector of prisons, is a good and humane man whom I am loth to disagree with – but I do on this. Change the rules by all means, but let the state prove danger in all of these cases. The state created this lousy logjam, it should use its executive power to set those undeservedly trapped in it free.

Eric Allison is the Guardian’s prison correspondent