Families’ plea over ‘barbaric’ indefinite prison sentences for minor crimes
Exclusive: Thousands left in English and Welsh prisons without release dates, despite controversial indefinite sentences long being scrapped
“Seventeen years I’ve been in jail, on a two-and-a-half year [minimum sentence], for a phone robbery where no violence was ever used.
“My daughter Lataya, 19 years old, has recently passed away, and my uncle now also. Please ask the media to run my story.”
Leroy Douglas wrote these words to campaigner Shirley Debono from his cell in Stocken Prison in the East Midlands. He does not know when he will be released.
Leroy was given a controversial type of indefinite prison sentence, known as ‘imprisonment for public protection’ (IPP), for stealing a phone during a street robbery in 2006. Some 8,000 IPPs were given out by judges in England and Wales between 2005 and 2012, when they were abolished.
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But there was no reprieve for those already serving IPPs, even if they had completed their minimum sentence (tariff) – meaning there is no set date for Leroy’s release.
“It’s just barbaric that he should be in prison not for the crime he committed, but because there is no help for him out there,” Shirley tells me. “And Leroy does need help to get out.”
Documents seen by openDemocracy show that Leroy was deemed fit for release to a ‘Category D’ open prison last year by a community offender manager.
Yet hearings have been delayed – once because the Parole Board said it didn’t have enough information and then again because a legal representative failed to turn up.
The Parole Board told openDemocracy it was “following standard processes” and that “protecting the public is our number one priority”.
But a spokesperson added: "The board recognises the frustration and loss of hope felt by IPP prisoners and their families and welcomes the moves to methodically review and potentially cancel the licence of IPPs who were initially released ten years ago or more.”
No IPP prisoner is the same when they come out
Shirley began campaigning for justice on the issue of IPP prisoners when her own son, Shaun Lloyd, was given one in 2006.
“No IPP prisoner is the same when they come out,” she tells me.
“My boy is white so didn’t get the racism, but if you are Black you put up with so much racism [in prison]. Leroy has been called Black c**t, monkey – he has been called everything.”
In a small Cardiff cafe, Shirley tells me about another man, James*. When he was 16, James punched a boy in the face and stole his bike. He, too, was given an IPP sentence in 2007.
James was moved to a mental health hospital more than four years ago “because there is no mental health care in prison”, Shirley says.
“His mental health [problems] were mistaken for bad behaviour.”
Shirley tells me that, the last time James’s mother heard from her son, he was in a wheelchair and had been receiving electric shock therapy.
“He was crying: ‘Mum, they are trying to kill me, they are trying to kill me.’ His mum is in despair.”
‘A farcical situation’
IPP sentences were introduced in 2003 by the then justice secretary, David Blunkett. They came into law two years later. Blunkett has since expressed regret, saying he “got it wrong”.
One of the many controversial aspects of IPPs is the lengthy and arduous licence conditions – rules that must be followed if prisoners are ever finally released. Ex-prisoners can be recalled to custody at any time during their licence period.
In November 2021, Blunkett himself told fellow peers: “Out of the 3,000 people who are still in prison on IPP, 1,300 of them are there because of recalls. That is 100% up from 2016, five years ago. If we are not careful, that trajectory will lead to more prisoners being in prison on IPP on recall than are actually in prison for the original IPP sentence applied, which is a farcical situation and a tragedy for them.”
You put up with so much racism [in prison]. Leroy has been called Black c**t, monkey – everything
Abdullahi Suleman came to Britain in 1993 as a young child fleeing a devastating war in Somalia, where he had lost a significant number of family members. He was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
After a non-violent offence, in 2005 he was handed an IPP sentence with a two-year tariff and a 10-year licence agreement upon release. While still on licence he missed a probation appointment and was sent back to prison, where he remains. He is now facing deportation.
Since returning to jail, Abdullahi has suffered two serious injuries, including a life-changing brain injury sustained during an attack by a fellow prisoner, who broke a bone at the front of Abdullahi’s skull, and a wound to his arm from a metal radio aerial.
According to his wife Bernadette, who campaigns alongside Shirley, Abdullahi was left for two years without medical checks and taken off his medication for bipolar disorder. The Ministry of Justice did not respond to our questions ahead of publication.
Abdullahi’s is far from the only heartbreaking story.
Mohammed Nazir Khan was jailed on an IPP sentence for wounding with intent at the age of 25. His family believe he was acting in self-defence after being attacked outside his own home. The tariff he was given was 21 months.
That was in 2005. Mohammed is still in prison.
“My grandmother waits for her son, crying every day,” his niece, Zafirah Zulfiqar, tells me. “Whenever she feels unwell, she begs God to not take her from this earth until she’s reunited with her son.”
Zafirah says Mohammed had been assaulted by officers in prison. He has tried multiple times to make complaints, she adds, but no action has been taken. During COVID, he and other prisoners have been in lockdown for up to 23 hours a day.
Shirley also told me about Garth O'Hagan, an IPP prisoner who was due to be released after ten years in jail. A suitable hostel space couldn’t be found for him, and he was kept for another year. When he was finally released, he secured a job but got into a fight after work one day, during which he was punched.
Garth was sent back to prison even though CCTV showed he was the person who had been injured, and that he hadn’t hit the other person.
Charlotte Noakes was ordered to spend a minimum of 15 months in jail on an IPP sentence. At the time of her death, she had served eight and a half years in custody
A talented artist who had been offered a scholarship to study at Central Saint Martins upon release, Charlotte was described by her family as funny, intelligent, charismatic and creative.
An inquest into her death heard that “the indefinite nature of Charlotte’s sentence, and her fear that she would never be released from prison, contributed to a sense of extreme hopelessness. She described her sentence to her family as a death sentence.”
Charlotte was 38 when she was found dead in her cell in HMP Peterborough in July 2016. An inquest later found she had died of natural causes.
My grandmother waits for her son, crying every day
Danny Weatherson, from Scotswood, Newcastle, was 17 when he and a group of his friends tried to steal a coat and a mobile phone from somebody on their estate.
He was given an IPP sentence after being convicted of attempted robbery. The judge recommended he serve 15 months before applying for parole. But more than 15 years later he is still behind bars.
Deteriorating mental health
Campaigners have so far managed to get only 1,300 signatures on their petition to stop IPP prisoners being recalled to prison without being found guilty of new offences. As all such UK government petitions run for six months, they have only two months to reach the 100,000 needed for a debate in Parliament. It’s hard to get people to care about imprisoned working-class people, the campaigners have found.
Last year, Shirley attended the Justice Committee to discuss IPPs. Also in the room was Dinesh Maganty, a doctor who had been a forensic psychiatrist for one of the country’s largest prisons, HMP Blakenhurst in Redditch (now HMP Hewell).
Maganty said that, when the first IPP prisoners arrived, they “were not severely mentally ill. But as the years have gone, but increasingly what we are finding is they are becoming mentally ill. Their clinical presentation is increasingly akin to those who've been wrongfully convicted.”
He added: “Their mental health needs, as it were – their anxiety, depression and eventually psychosis in some cases – was used as a risk indicator. And when that occurred it led to a system of them being perpetually in prison.”
Campaigners have organised a joint statement opposing the continued incarceration of IPP prisoners, pointing out the sentence was available to judges when dealing with crimes such as affray and criminal damage that had never previously attracted a life sentence. So far it has been signed by the head of policy and campaigns at advocacy group Liberty, Sam Grant; Michael Mansfield QC; psychologist Jaspreet Tehara; and Amrit Singh Dhesi of the Sikh Council.
Signatories also include journalists Caitlin Moran, Owen Jones, Laurie Penny and Suzanne Moore.
Shirley and fellow campaigner Donna Mooney had two meetings with Robert Buckland when he was Boris Johnson’s justice secretary.
Buckland lost his cabinet post the day before their last meeting was supposed to take place, in September 2021, but Donna met probation minister Kit Malthouse last week to discuss the issue.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “The number of IPP prisoners has fallen by two-thirds since 2012.
“We are helping those still in custody progress towards release, but as a judge deemed them to be a high risk to the public, the independent Parole Board must decide if they are safe to leave prison.
“The claims being made about individual prisoners are categorically untrue.”
* James’s name has been changed.
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