10:17, March 03 185 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-03 10:17:04
Charlotte Nokes's father: 'They might as well have thrown the key away'

Charlotte Nokes told her father that the prison term she was serving was a “death sentence”.

A talented artist with a personality disorder and history of drug misuse, Charlotte was given a minimum term of 15 months but no maximum; she was convinced the sentence was in effect “never-ending”.

The 38-year-old had been locked up for eight years and was on suicide watch and died alone in her cell in the privately-run Peterborough prison with no end to her incarceration in sight.

While the causes of her death remain inconclusive, her family were left in no doubt the terms of her imprisonment were behind a devastating deterioration in her mental health.

As the inquest into Charlotte’s death came to a close, Steven Nokes, her father, told the Guardian: “I feel as hopeless as she did. They might as well have thrown the key away.”

Charlotte, from Hayling Island, Hampshire, was handed an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence for attempted robbery and possession of a bladed weapon in 2008.

Introduced under Labour in 2005, IPPs were designed to detain indefinitely serious offenders who were perceived to be a risk to the public. The government expected about 900 people to be jailed under an IPP; it peaked at more than 8,000. They were used far more widely than intended and issued to offenders who committed low-level crimes.

This, coupled by a European court of human rights ruling that the sentences were unlawful, led to their use being scrapped in 2012. But the changes were not retrospective and inmates already sentenced to an IPP remained in prison under the same terms.

“We talked about the sentence,” Nokes recalls. “She said: ‘Dad, you really don’t realise what this sentence is about. You don’t realise this is a life sentence. I’m going to die in here.’

“You don’t want to hear that.”

His daughter was a talented artist who had been offered a scholarship at Central Saint Martins, the prestigious art school in central London, and her work had been exhibited by the Koestler Trust at the Southbank Centre.

She struggled with the breakup of her parents as well as with coming out as gay; her father explains she was “beaten up for being different”. This led to “self medication” with drugs, and mixed with her personality disorder, led to challenging behaviour.

Nokes, who lives in Portsmouth, says hospital would have been the best place for his daughter. “I don’t think the care was appropriate. If she did have a mental health problem, is prison the best place for her? No, definitely not.”

He witnessed her mental health decline as 15 months passed and years went by. “We used to visit her as often as we could. The medication was unbelievable, the amount of stuff they were giving her. She wasn’t getting any better. I honestly thought she would take her own life. She was just hopeless.”

On 23 July 2016 Charlotte was found dead in her cell. The inquest into her death recorded a verdict of natural causes, by extremely rare sudden arrhythmic death syndrome.

There have been several deaths of IPP prisoners in recent years, many of which were recorded as suicide.

David Dunnings, 35, Shane Stroughton, 29, Kelvin Speakman, 30, Steven Trudghill, 23, all died over tariff while serving IPP sentences.

Tommy Nicol described the IPP as the “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years”. This damning assessment was written in one of a number of handwritten complaints filed while serving time for stealing a car – and about nine months before he took his own life.

Nicol was jailed on a minimum four-year tariff and was six years into his sentence when he died. His time in prison was characterised by repeated setbacks with access to mental health care. On 15 September 2015 he was found unresponsive in his cell. Four days later, he was pronounced dead in hospital. He was 37.

His sister, Donna Mooney, knew little about the IPP sentence before she lost her brother and was left shaken by revelations about the staggering mental decline he experienced behind bars.

“It was 100% the main factor in what led him to have such a deterioration in his mental health and led him to take his life,” Donna says at her home in south-west London.

“If he had an end in sight, even if it felt unfair, at least he would know it was happening. If it was a life sentence, he would know. It’s the not knowing. It’s torture.”

There were 2,134 unreleased IPP prisoners as of 31 December 2019; 93% of IPP prisoners were post-tariff. Meanwhile, the recalled IPP population stood at 1,260.

With thousands of IPP prisoners still behind bars and over the minimum tariff, that leaves potentially hundreds of families living in fear.

Alison Miles’s son Lawrence Owen is currently in Pentonville prison. Owen was jailed for arson in 2010 at the age of 17 on an IPP sentence with a minimum two-year tariff. Ten years on, he is still locked up.

Speaking from her home in south-east London, Miles, 45, said Owen had a tough childhood and was taken into care due to domestic violence – but she was able to maintain regular contact and visits with him.

In 2010, a spate of deaths of close family members pushed him to consider suicide and he set his own flat alight. But as the flames broke out he changed his mind and leapt from the building.

“He lost the will to live,” Miles says. “It was attempted suicide but they charged him with arson.”

When he was first jailed, Miles and her son had no idea what the IPP sentence really meant.

“I didn’t have a clue, I googled it,” she said. “I thought this will be okay. He’ll do two maybe three years. But 10 years we’re still here waiting.”

As Owen’s minimum term passed, the gravity of his situation started to bear down on him. “He has said: ‘I will never come out, I will die in this prison.’

“Even people dying of cancer, they say: ‘You’ve got six months, you’ve got a year.’ The IPP, they don’t give them a timescale.”

A joint prison service and Parole Board action plan has been put in place to help prisoners serving public protection sentences to progress towards release, the Ministry of Justice said.

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