'No light at end of tunnel': Hundreds stuck behind bars under law abolished in 2012

Hundreds still inside hope for a chance to have their lives back, as Reporter Sangita Lal explains

An ITV News investigation has revealed that hundreds of people are being held in prison under a law that was abolished a decade ago - with one still stuck behind bars 17 years past his original sentence.

Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) were introduced in 2003 and were originally meant for "dangerous offenders". They were designed to operate in a similar way to life sentences, where someone must serve a minimum tariff before being considered for release.

However, under the terms of an IPP, inmates released from prison remain under licensing conditions for the rest of their lives. This element was deemed necessary at the time of their introduction to ensure public safety.

But IPPs were issued more widely than first intended and given to people who committed a low level offence with a short tariff. The Ministry of Justice has said this was because they were "difficult to understand" and led to "inconsistent sentencing".

Following a government review in 2011, they were abolished in 2012. But ITV News can now reveal that:

  • Between 2005 - 2012, a total of 8,711 people were given IPP sentences.

  • As of June 2021, there were still 1,646 people who were never released.

  • Of these, 207 had originally been given a tariff of less than two years. This means 13% of the current IPP population in prison have served more than 12 years for a crime that would normally warrant a sentence of two years or less.

Dozens of people serving IPPs have attempted to take their own lives, data reveals Credit: ITV News

'Ill-conceived and fundamentally flawed'

There have been long-standing concerns about IPPs and the response since they were abolished.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, has argued for years that IPPs should be seen as the epitome of a "risk-based penal system" - punishing people on what they might do in the future instead of what they did in the past. 

It says that the "New Labour years in government saw a distinct change in criminal justice and sentencing policy" with public protection taking a "more prominent role as a purpose of sentencing".

It adds that "proportionality", which experts described as "the concept that the sentence reflects the seriousness of the crime", increasingly had less influence - something that has been heavily criticised as it leads to "unfair and unjust sentences".

The law was brought in by Lord David Blunkett who - ever since - has been campaigning to help all those currently still serving IPP sentences. Lord Blunkett has now joined the campaign group UNGRIPP calling for many who were originally given short tariffs to be released.

He says this law was his "biggest regret" that has contributed to the "single greatest stain on the justice system" in the UK.

"We’re still here 10 years on having to mop up the consequences"

Lord Blunkett told ITV News: “I don’t blame anyone for this other than myself because I should’ve been better prepared to lay down in legislation in detail precisely what should’ve happened.

“That didn’t take place. A lot of lessons have been learnt. But above all, the lesson that having abolished the Act in 2012, we’re still here 10 years on having to mop up the consequences.”

A Select Committee Inquiry is currently underway aiming to understand why so many people are still serving time on IPPs, why they're recalled back, and what can be done by the government to improve the situation.

'We don't think he's going to come home alive'

Wayne Bell was 17 years old when he was sentenced to two years in prison for stealing a bike.

That was in 2007 and he's still not returned home.

Wayne's family say they fear he may not ever come home alive Credit: ITV News

After spending 12 years in prison, he now lives in a mental health institution because he has PTSD and Schizophrenia.

His sister, Alana Bell, told ITV News: “Wayne’s been on 24-hour watch now for two years. We don’t think he’s going to come home alive.

"He’ll be upset and say ‘listen, sis just tell me what I’ve done because I know it’s not over a bike’.

"I’m trying to explain to him all the time that it is - he just doesn’t believe me...

"You get to the sixth year, the seventh year, the eighth and then you get to ten years and you think ‘what?’ It's just shocking."

"Wayne’s had to watch people walk free - rapists, murderers, pack their bags and go. So I can see why it's damaged him,” she adds.

Martin Myers is still in prison after being given an IPP sentence in 2006. He was convicted of street burglary after stealing a cigarette.

Martin has told his family he sees 'no way out' Credit: ITV News

But his family say one of the factors that has prevented his release is an inaccurate charge of sexual assault that was added to his records. The Ministry of Justice has apologised and given Martin compensation.

Martin calls his sister-in-law, Marie Cawley, sometimes 10 times a day for support.

Marie says: “Martin tells me every other day that there’s no way out - he can only see one way out and that is for him to die in prison."

"We're scared every time the phone rings... that Martin is dead," says Martin's sister-in-law Marie

Marie adds: "It's having an awful, huge impact on Martin. He's tried numerous attempts at suicide...

"We're scared every time the phone rings just to get that call that Martin is dead."

'No light at the end of the tunnel'

These people are not being unlawfully held. They're simply being held under a law that was abolished.

The Ministry of Justice says even though changes have been made to the law, such changes will not be retrospective.

It adds: "Current IPP prisoners will continue to serve their sentences, and will only be released when the Parole Board assesses them as suitable."

Sam Samworth, a former prison officer who has worked with prisoners serving sentences under IPPs, underlines the impact they are having on those individuals.

"There's no light at the end of the tunnel... they've given people a life sentence, stop calling it an IPP," he says.

"It's a life sentence keeping people locked up for petty crime. It's all to do with politics."

If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, for more information and support, you can go to:

Samaritans can be visited at their website or called on 116 123 for free if you need support with any on-going mental health problem.

The mental health charity Mind has information on ways to help yourself cope during a crisis.