Locking people up is a vote winner. It's negging the electorate. Tell the people that your priority is to put more prisoners behind bars, and you're basically saying that society needs protecting because some of you are shit. It's a way for politicians to argue that bad people—rather than bad policies—are ruining things.
The UK discovered how seductive that message was when Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 on the back of a promise to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". It seemed smart at the time, simul- taneously preaching social reform and zero tolerance to the haters. But the true legacy of that soundbite has been an 18-year political arms race over which party can crack down hardest on criminals.
The peak of this dumb logic was the Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP). Introduced by Labour in 2005, it was essentially a life sentence for criminals whose crimes did not warrant a life sentence. It was supposed to protect the public from dangerous convicts who judges thought might reoffend. Anybody on an IPP would receive a recommended prison sentence, but they wouldn't be freed until they could per- suade the parole board they were no longer a danger to the public, no matter if that recommended sentence had been served.
Judges suddenly had the power to dole out life sentences to anybody. And they did—for shoplifting, affray (fighting in public) and driving offences so minor they could have been tried in a magistrates' court. VICE lodged Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the results of which showed that even though IPPs were only supposed to be given for 153 serious "specified offenc- es" (largely violent or sex crimes), judges flouted the guidelines and issued them for a handful of offences not on the list. They gave out so many that by 2012, when the Conservative government finally admitted that the sentence was probably a bad idea and abolished it, 8,701 had been issued.
Astonishingly, despite scrapping the sentence, nobody bothered to address the thousands of prisoners already inside be- cause of it—more than three quarters of whom have now completed their minimum sentence, but have no set release date. I'd love to tell you some of their stories, but I can't because it has become increasingly difficult to publish interviews with prisoners. Some prisoners have made it out, though.
Michael Hood is one of the lucky ones. When we meet in a greasy spoon in Plymouth, he is four months out of jail. Hood was 20 when he was convicted of Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) with intent. High on valium and alcohol, Hood and his two co-defendants gave an acquaintance a brutal kicking. He knew he deserved prison, so he pleaded guilty, and was given an IPP with a recommended sentence of three years—a pretty typical sentence for a GBH conviction. Seven years on, he has only just managed to get out. "At first I didn't really know what [an IPP] was," he says. "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."
Dressed in a tracksuit and polo shirt, skin peppered with scrawled tattoos and scars from his time inside, Hood recalls that he eventually managed to secure his release through a mixture of good behaviour and a helpful offender manager.
However, it was difficult. He had to complete rehabilitation courses, but budget cuts meant that these weren't always available in the prison he was in, so he had to move. In total he switched between nine different locations to complete the courses he needed, which, he calculates, added around two years to his sentence. Every parole hearing presents the possibility of more courses if the board decide that release is inappropriate at that time.
"I couldn't see an end," says Hood. "If there was light at the end of the tunnel, if there was an end date, I'd know that was what I needed to work towards." The reality is that prisoners on IPPs are rarely released once they've completed their minimum sentence. In all Hood's time inside, he never met a single prisoner who was released straight after they'd finished their minimum. And the effect of not knowing when or if you'll be out takes its toll.
"I've seen some good men lose the plot," says Hood. "I've seen a guy—I got the IPP on the fifth of December, he got it seven days later. He was a lump; he didn't take no shit off anyone. I saw him about four and a half years later in another jail, and he was skinny, he was on heroin, he'd sold everything out of his cell—he was in prison slippers, for fuck's sake. This man went from up there to down there and he was destroyed."
Last year, around two fifths of IPP prisoners reported self-harming. VICE's FOI requests reveal that since the sentences were abolished in 2012, at least 16 IPP prisoners have killed themselves while in jail. "You've got to fight so hard to get out," says Hood, "and then when you do get out, you've got to fight to stay out."
The fact is, cuts to the prison system have made the release of IPP prisoners so arbitrary that it can look like a lottery.
"Not one single penny was provided for extra courses for these prisoners from their inception, and that was just crazy. That meant that the system could not work," says Pete Weatherby QC, a barrister who helped abolish the sentence in 2012 by obtaining a ruling that it breaches European human rights law. "If you were going to justify it by saying, 'Let's take the bad guys off the street,' then it would have to be in tandem with the provision of resources where they could be properly rehabilitated."
But no money was pumped into helping IPP prisoners rehabilitate, resulting in a Kafkaesque nightmare where prisoners needed to complete courses to get out, but were unable to because the courses were over-subscribed or unavailable.
Today the situation is arguably even worse thanks to budget cutbacks to prison services, probation and the parole board. The irony of this position is that the longer prisoners serving IPPs stay inside, the more it costs the taxpayer. Even if you're a fan of solving society's problems by chucking every one in sight in jail, VICE found that it costs £119 million a year to keep IPP prisoners who have completed their recommended sentence banged up.
John Samuels QC is a former judge who sat on the parole board for ten years, before retiring in September. VICE was the first to get an interview with him after he stood down. "The backlog of cases before the parole board is grow- ing all the time," he says. "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."
The privatisation of the probation service, otherwise known as the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, has also caused problems, Samuels says. "As a result of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, 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 video link." Samuels believes 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 com- promised," he says. "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."
Legislation introduced in 2012 means that the government has the power to easily order the release of IPP prisoners who have served their recommended term. A provision inserted in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 gives the justice secretary the power to change the release test for IPP and other indeterminate prisoners, without all the hassle of presenting a new bill before parliament.
That might have been unthinkable a few years ago, but weeks ago Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, said that the failure of society to rehabilitate criminals was "indefensible'". This is a man so Dickensian that when he was Education Secretary he actually tried to force everyone to study Dickens at GCSE. If he believes too many people are stuck inside, then the UK's forgotten prisoners might have a hope of a reprieve.
But the Ministry of Justice told VICE that it has no plans to retroactively address the sentences of IPP prisoners, and their release is entirely a matter for the parole board. The parole board said it was "working hard" to tackle the caseload. In mid-December The Times reported that justice secretary Michael Gove is reviewing the position of IPP prisoners. No official announcements have been made, however.
For now at least, the release of IPP prisoners will continue at a painfully slow rate. "I'm not saying I didn't deserve prison, because I did," says Hood. "What I done weren't a nice thing. What I didn't deserve was a sentence with no release date."