A vicious, indeterminate cycle?

Ella Rhodes reports on an inquiry into indeterminate sentences for public protection.

A justice committee inquiry into indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPPs) has heard from forensic psychologist Professor Graham Towl (Durham University), who shared insights on the mental health impact of IPPs. More than 3000 people are currently serving IPPs – which have no end date – and many have already been in prison for much longer than their minimum term, despite the sentences being abolished in 2012.

IPPs were introduced by Lord David Blunkett in 2005 during his time as Home Secretary – a decision he later said was wrong. In 2010 the Prison Reform Trust in a report on IPPs said that they were ‘one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of British sentencing’.

A government statement pointed out that to be released prisoners have to satisfy the Parole Board that they no longer pose a risk to the public. The statement continued, ‘the first session of the Committee’s inquiry heard of the “vicious cycle” in which many prisoners are being kept in prison in part due to developing mental illnesses whilst being held indeterminately, which has in turn contributed to their risk level.’

At a recent evidence session the Justice Committee heard from Lord Blunkett as well as Professor Towl, a former Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice. Towl was asked by one committee member about the efficacy of programmes offered in prisons and the experiences of people serving IPP sentences – particularly the difficulties they face given the uncertainty about their release dates. He pointed out that having little control over life has been found to lead to poor mental health outcomes. Towl said he was concerned that questions of risk and need could become complicated – he gave the example of self-harm, which could be an indication that someone is trying to communicate a need, yet it can sometimes be taken as an indicator of personality disorders. ‘There is a danger that individuals will become pathologised for what, in practice, is just a fairly normal reaction to a trauma-inducing situation – to have no prospect of when they will be leaving prison… all that uncertainty, managing that… is bound to have a negative effect on mental health. And that would be the case, I think, for any of us.’

Towl added that it would be useful to have access to data on the efficacy of programmes run in prisons and pointed to recent findings that programmes aimed to reduce sexual offending had made some people worse – a result which was not released for five years. He said that, given the data which shows those serving IPP sentences are experiencing anxiety and depression, programmes should both aim to reduce reoffending and improve wellbeing and personal development. 

‘If we… don’t do work giving them practical skills and practical help linked to employment and education, then I think it is less likely that they will thrive in terms of not reoffending ultimately. I think it’s more likely they will engage more positively in work to reduce reoffending if we show that we have an interest in them too.’ 

The inquiry has received numerous written and oral submissions of evidence from charities such as Women in Prison, probation officers, academics and individuals affected by IPP sentences. Find out more about the inquiry.

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