Thousands of Prisoners Are Stuck in Endless Limbo in British Jails

Long after its abolition, the discredited IPP sentence still means thousands are stuck in prison indefinitely.
Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) tariff prison officer
Photo by Jeff Gilbert

Cardiff-born Shaun Lloyd was 18 when he was convicted for a street robbery in 2006. The father-of-one was handed an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) tariff with a recommended minimum term of two years and nine months. But under the terms of the now discredited and scrapped sentence, he could be held until whenever the parole board saw fit.

Shaun was not released until 2014. He spent an initial eight years behind bars, marked by rapidly deteriorating mental health, growing drug addiction and a suicide attempt. After leaving prison he sought help from probation officers to deal with his addiction, but was rebuffed from any attempts to gain access to rehab. There were bouts of loneliness and depression. How, without professional support structures, was he supposed to reintegrate back into the fabric of the old life that had passed him by?


In 2017, he was recalled to HMP Cardiff after failing a drug test and being named in connection with a police investigation that was quickly dropped due to a lack of evidence. He remains in prison today, over two years later.

There are thousands of other stories like Shaun’s – testament to the disastrous human cost of IPP.

The sentence was New Labour policy, brought into law in 2005, as part of the Criminal Justice Act of 2003 covering England and Wales. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary at the time, expressed “regret” over the injustices it caused. The justification was that it would ensure dangerous violent and sexual offenders were kept in prison for “as long as they posed a danger to the public”.

IPP prisoner Shaun Lloyd

Shaun Lloyd with his mother, Shirley Debobno. Photo courtesy of Shirley Debobno

This wording was vague enough to leave itself open to the widespread abuse that followed. “Poorly planned and implemented… its serious implications for the prison estate remain [to this day]”, the penal reform charity The Howard League wrote in their official report on IPP.

The insidiousness of the sentence is that it removes the sense of an ending. Without a set date of release, how is it possible for those incarcerated to feel hope, or to begin even vaguely planning for life outside?

The sentence was formally abolished by the Coalition government in 2012, after a European Court ruling that claimed it violated human rights, after it became clear how widespread the tariff's use had become and how many were being served what amounted to life sentences for petty, non-violent crimes. After significant pressure from campaign groups and charities, Ken Clarke, Justice Secretary at the time, labelled IPPs “unclear, inconsistent and… used far more readily than were ever intended”. Initially, the Home Office had estimated that only 900 of the most dangerous criminals would be served with IPP. Through a mixture of judicial overzealousness and a failure to understand what the sentence meant in practice, its usage exploded in the years up to 2010.


At its height, over seven per cent of the prison population were comprised of IPPs. But abolition has only proved to be a partial victory, as its terms didn’t apply retroactively. Of the 8,711 people served with the sentence, over 2,500 remain in prison, with little to no idea as to when they will be free. And though release rates increased up to 2018, they have since stalled, a trend that has alarmed criminal justice charities and the families of those incarcerated, who fear that interest in their plight is liable to wane at any time.

Shaun Lloyd’s mother, Shirley Debono, is one of those determined to keep the spotlight on IPP. “[Back] in the mid-2000s nobody was really aware of what the sentences meant, including some people in the legal profession. I didn’t know where to start. It took months and months to even find out what IPP was. You have a breakdown because you just don’t understand how someone can be serving life, for a crime that in no way merits a life sentence," she tells me over the phone.

Shirley is part of a wider campaign to raise awareness of the continued plight of IPP prisoners. Her petition to revoke her son’s sentence has garnered over 45,000 signatures since it’s launch. Why, she wants to know, can Shaun not be freed to try and rebuild his life after paying his debt back to society multiple times over?

Mark Day is head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust, one of the UK’s leading independent prison charities. He told me that the reduction of IPP prisoners in recent years is being undermined by the significant number of those who are being recalled to prison. In 2017, the BBC reported that over half of released IPP prisoners were being recalled for “breach of licence conditions”, just as Shaun Lloyd had been in 2014. 2019 has already seen over a thousand recalls – the worst year by far.


“We urgently need to understand the reasons behind this high rate of recall, and whether IPP prisoners on release are getting sufficient help and support to enable them to make a success of their resettlement,” he said. “Ultimately, the government needs to take the bull by the horns and address the injustice faced by the thousands of people continuing to serve a sentence which parliament has judged unfit to remain on the statute book.”

The current political mood is not promising. Home Secretary Priti Patel has set out her stall by declaring how she wants criminals to “literally feel terror” in the face of new “law and order reforms”, though neither she nor any of her immediate predecessors have thought to address IPP, at least publicly. Instead, it’s the usual full blooded rhetoric, like the announcement of 10,000 new prison places, at a cost of over £100million – money that could alternatively be spent on other elements of a creaking criminal justice system, like an ever more emaciated probation service that many critics say is one of the key drivers in the acceleration of IPP recalls.

Someone with first hand experience of IPP, is 28-year-old Tiny Boost, the Peckham-raised MC and long time member of Giggs’ SN1 collective. In his youth, Boost found himself sucked into a culture where access to guns and other weapons were part of the fabric of life. After a short young offenders sentence in his late teens, he caught a gun possession charge in 2009, not long after his 18th birthday, resulting in an IPP tariff. This was at the height of the IPP boom – he knew others that had been sentenced under it, so he well understood the significance of what had happened.


Though he was released in early 2018, his time inside wasn’t without complications. Though life is positive since his release, IPP isn’t something consigned to the past. “I’m still on it right now. Originally I got five years and ended up doing eight-and-a-half.”

He had spent six years working his way to a D-Cat prison – the lowest security categorisation, effectively an open prison where day visits are permitted in the lead up to eventual release. On one such visit he recorded a song with a “violent message”, and found himself put back to a higher security prison. This was in 2015, long before Skengdo and AM, a pair of London drill rappers, controversially became the first artists to be sentenced for performing a song.

“I got sent back to normal jail before having to work my way back to D Cat. All in all, it took three parole hearings before I was let out. If I went back to jail now – God forbid – I still wouldn’t have a set release date.”

Boost isn’t consumed by bitterness and accepts the facts of his past and time inside. He also believes that he has made significant efforts to change and rehabilitate himself. Why, after serving his time, should the threat of being recalled hang over his head? It’s a question that reoccurs in all of my conversations with those that have have to live in the shadow of IPP.

Shirley Debobno acknowledges that her son was, and is, no angel. He did something wrong and was punished, but “he isn’t violent and you can see the effect that [IPP has had] on him”. Shaun Lloyd is trapped in a state of enforced limbo, as are thousands of others stuck in the same nightmarish predicament. It will need more than words of contrition from those in power to solve a scandal nearly 15 years in the making.