Imprisoned for Public Protection (IPP) is just life with parole for many prisoners, but knee jerk reactions to a few press reports is not the solution. 

An IPP prisoner is one who the court  decided needed to be imprisoned for public protection. Basically a person was given a set prison sentence, for example 3 years, but then on top of that the judge designated them as a danger to the public and that means they can’t be released until it has been decided by the parole board that the prisoner is no longer a risk of harm if released. 

The IPP scheme was abolished in 2012, and replaced with a scheme where a prisoner is now given a set sentence, say 3 years, and then (for certain offences) if the judge considers them dangerous, an extended sentence can be imposed, such as another 3 years.  Hence, extended term prisoners now have a release date.

Recent press reports about a young man with mental health issues who was given a sentence of less than a year but designated an IPP, and has served many additional years has resulted in mud slinging between the Parole Board, Ministry of Justice, Prisons and prisoners’ families.  Whereas on social media, suddenly prison experts seem to have come out of the woodwork..

The reality is that some of the IPP prisoners still incarcerated would be able to walk away from prison if released and live a normal life. Most wouldn’t, the years of incarceration and lack of support from within the prison system means that some who were not really dangerous when they were imprisoned may well have been made dangerous by the state.  Many of the current courses offered in prison are run by private companies for profit, they don’t actually benefit the prisoner, there aren’t enough places on the courses, and they often are cancelled or replaced by another bright idea course part way through, 

Many IPP prisoners downgraded to open conditions of released on licence are recalled due to minor breaches of their licence as the test for recall is not whether a person is becoming a risk of harm to the public, but rather whether they breach their licence conditions, such as by going to the pub for a pint, getting back late to the hostel. The recall system is part of the IPP problem. 

I am a lawyer working in prison law and representing IPP prisoners. Almost all of those I have represented have been released, those who haven’t been released have (with the exception of 2) been downgraded in category.  The 2 who have not been downgraded are preparing for a further hearing to determine whether they can be released.  

I’d like to say my clients have been released due to me having fantastic advocacy skills, but that’s simply not true. The secret to release for an IPP prisoner is preparation for the parole hearing. Not just taking the courses etc which the Ministry of Justice seems to think will all of a sudden make someone no longer dangerous.  A full package of information on the prisoner, an independent psychiatric report, evidence from family and friends about how they will support the prisoner on release, evidence the prisoner has thought realistically about their future such as the type of work they are going to be able to undertake and where they will live. These have to be realistic, for example, it is pointless for a sex offender to suggest they are going to set up their own tattoo business – no parole board is going to release a prisoner sentenced for serious sex offences, so that they can spend their days touching the skin of semi clad women. 

The parole board will provide a package for the prisoner prior to their hearing, but it’s very one sided, reports from the prison, reports from probation (often from a probation office who doesn’t know the prisoner and has spent no more than an hour interviewing them over a video link). For some reason the parole board members often seem to take more notice of the views of this probation officer who doesn’t know the prisoner, than a prison officer who has observed them on a daily basis. 

In the USA I work with youths who were given life without parole but who now have a chance of a rehearing. I also prepare for clemency hearings for death row prisoners, the last ditch attempt to persuade a State Governor not to execute a prisoner.  For both of these types of case I work with a mitigation expert who is appointed for the prisoner. We prepare a package of information which is not state biased and which gives another angle or perspective to the prisoners life.  

Just as in my criminal defence work when I question why anyone suspected or charged with an offence would rely on the police to investigate their defence, I question why any prisoner will just rely on the reports prepared by the prison & probation (both Government underfunded and controlled by targets which the prisoner knows nothing about).  

A few weeks ago I read an email from a lawyer to a young defendant’s mother in which the lawyer told the mother that probation had prepared a pre sentence report, they felt there was no need for an expert report so the lawyer wasn’t going to ask for one. The probation officer had spent 30 minutes on a video link with the defendant to prepare the presentence report, had not identified the youth’s mental health issues or learning difficulties. The youth was given an extended sentence on the say so of a private company employed probation officer who had no experience of dealing with youth defendants, and had only been a probation officer for less than a year, and on their own admission was told by their bosses they could spend no more than an hour on each pre sentence report they prepared. 
As lawyers we can do more to assist our IPP clients. As always, funding is an issue for many lawyers acting for prisoners, only a few law firms now have a prison law contract as the LAA actively encouraged firms not to apply for a prison law contract. Just travel costs alone to visit a prisoner can be extremely expensive, most IPP prisoners are housed in prisons in the middle of nowhere with no public transport links. A return train to the closest station and taxi from the station can often amount to more than £100 from London so it is very difficult to take on IPP cases pro bono. However in all of my cases I have found a solution, a solicitor who has hounded the LAA until they agree to fund an expert report, a family which manages to fund my travel to prison, a PhD candidate who is funded by their university and is prepared to assist with assessing my client, a charity which has gained access to a prison to offer a particular course. 

Just arguing the IPP prisoners should be released is not the answer, each prisoner is different, and each case should be taken on its merits. I question whether the Parole Board should be left with responsibility for trying to resolve the mess the Ministry of Justice has created by its dithering.  If the parole board focuses on IPP prisoners, this will create a backlog of other prisoners awaiting a parole board hearing. The current backlogs of over 2 years in many cases is already unacceptable. Although it should be said, a lot of the backlog is not only due to the parole board, but often due to the prison or probation not providing reports on time or not turning up to hearings. 

A solution would be to have a panel of High Court judges with criminal law experience, conducting a release hearing. The judge could sit with a parole board member and hear evidence much like in a parole hearing, but unlike a parole board, they could have power to replace the IPP with an extended term (if release was not deemed appropriate).  All IPP prisoners should get the equivalent of a pre trial review court hearing automatically, this hearing in front of the judge could be used to set a timetable for reports and other evidence, list the evidence etc which the judge requires, and set a date for the full hearing. Judges should have the authority to approve funding for lawyers and experts. In essence a court appointed lawyer & court appointed expert.  

We could learn a lot from the USA. Within months of the Supreme Court ruling that Life Without Parole for youths was unconstitutional, the first cases were back in court, unlike the Ministry of Justice dithering while dishing out sound bites, which does nothing more than show that it is out of its depth in dealing with this issue. 

About gurdena

Social Justice Barrister, interested in all things contentious & anything criminal justice related including prisoners and complaints against the police. Specialising in criminal law - mainly sex, violence, and football fans (not necessarily all 3 at the same time!). Represents people facing death penalty in the USA. Associate Member at Drystone Chambers

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