'Torture sentences' that consign some of Britain's most wronged prisoners to decades behind bars

[Top row L-R] Roddy Russell, Aaron Graham and Cherrie Nichol as children, Aaron and Cherrie, Shirley Debono. [Bottom row L-R] Rob and Roddy Russell, Sir Bob Neill, Cherrie Nichol, Rob Russell. Credit: Family handouts/Richard Townshend

By ITV News content producer Kaisha Langton

Families across Britain have been left desperate, tormented and terrified their loved ones will see no other way out but to kill themselves as they continue their "torture sentence" behind bars.

Thousands of people are currently locked up in UK prisons, without hope of being released - under a sentence that was abolished more than a decade ago.

These prisoners have been left languishing in a "Kafka-esque" state, feeling hopeless and despairing for almost two decades - in some cases, for relatively minor crimes such as stealing a mobile phone.

ITV News spoke to prisoners and their families involved in the campaign for justice, as well as politicians fighting to help the "orphans stuck in this system".

Exhibition from IPP campaign group UNGRIPP calling for an end to IPP sentences which took place at the House of Commons in July Credit: Photo by Andy Aitchison

What is the IPP sentence? And why is it so contentious?

These inmates are serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences which are indeterminate sentences given to serious offenders who pose a significant risk of serious harm to the public.

The IPP sentence was abolished in 2012, but thousands are still languishing in prison with no end date in sight.

The sentence, created in 2003 and brought into force in April 2005, was designed to protect the public from serious offenders whose crimes did not merit a life sentence.

Essentially, it meant even after serving a minimum term, IPP prisoners could be held indefinitely if considered a risk.

The problem was the sentence, created by then Labour home secretary David Blunkett, was intended for a limited number of serious offenders - around 800.

It ended up being applied to 10 times that amount - with 8,711 individuals given these minimum terms ranging from 28 days to two years.

Despite its abolishment in 2012, there were no retrospective changes for the individuals who had already been sentenced under the legislation - leaving thousands of serving IPPs trapped in a system for years beyond their original tariff. 

A graphic showing how many IPP sentences were given out before it was abolished in 2012 Credit: UNGRIPP/Ministry of Justice/ITV News

At the end of last year, there were still a total of 2,892 IPP prisoners in England and Wales - with 48% of those (1,394) having never been released.

These prisoners can only be released if they are no longer deemed a risk to the public and if their rehabilitation is deemed successful - meaning they are being punished for crimes they might commit, rather than for the wrongs they have already committed, campaigners claim.

Only 35 of unreleased IPP prisoners have not passed their tariff date at the time of writing.

This sentence leads to significantly increased rates of self-harm (70% higher compared to the general prison population) and suicide.

A Prisons and Probation Ombudsman review of 200 deaths in custody found high levels of uncertainty and increased stress of indeterminate sentences place many people in prison at risk.

Campaigners and those who have come across the dire states of those stuck in this system reflect that self-harm and suicide are symptoms of the hopelessness and despair IPP prisoners face.

Tommy Nicol took his own life at HMP The Mount in 2015 Credit: Family handout

A sister's loss: "The longer this goes on, the more damage that is being done"

Donna Mooney's brother Thomas Nicol, took his own life in prison in 2015 - two years after he would likely have been released had he not been on an IPP sentence.

His family were left heartbroken after hearing his inquest conclude that he killed himself after he had “lost hope” as a direct result of the indeterminate sentence he was on.

The 37-year-old was given a minimum tariff of four years for robbery and had served six years with no immediate hope of being released.

Despite evidence of bizarre and acutely disturbed behaviour in prison, Mr Nicol was not subject to any mental health assessments which directly contravened prison guidelines.

Evidence given at the inquest revealed there was no mental healthcare available in the prison at the time of Mr Nicol's death.

A graphic showing the rates of self-harm among IPP prisoners Credit: UNGRIPP/Ministry of Justice/ITV News

Mrs Mooney, a member of the campaign group UNGRIPP, told ITV News: “After the inquest process, which was horrendous, we came out of it feeling there had been absolutely no justice for my brother and what happened to him - as well as a sense of how horrendous the IPP sentence really is.

“And it’s still happening to thousands and thousands of other people - and for me, I just wanted this to stop.”

She added: “I’m never going to get my brother back, I’m never going to hear his voice, I’m never going to be able to hug him again.

"But to know that there’s a way to stop this from happening to other people, to stop other people going through this and their families from going through this - that’s a real driver for me.”

The campaigner shared how she believes the suicide rate may climb higher in the next few years - “because the longer this goes on, the more damage that is being done”.

Prior to Mr Nicol’s death, he had been repeatedly moved through the prison system, suffered long periods of solitary confinement and had his mental health issues sidelined, despite an assessment finding he needed additional support. 

Mrs Mooney said: “The sentence is now creating more victims than it’s preventing”.

Mental health decline

The mental anguish inflicted on the thousands who have endured these sentences and those who continue to languish on indeterminate sentences is prolific.

National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) Dame Anne Owers shared the story of one prisoner who was handed a two-year tariff but is still in prison 13 years after that two-year period concluded. 

She said he had told those conducting the report into the IPP system: "I wake up each morning, not on each day not wanting to be alive. My mental health is in bits, and now it's starting to affect my family who are on the phone crying." 

Dame Anne added: “Those are the real stories of real people who feel themselves trapped in this system.”

Nick Bidar and Josh McRae

ITV News spoke to two prisoners who are currently incarcerated on IPP sentences.

Nick Bidar was sentenced to an eight-year minimum tariff for robbery and firearm with resist to arrest. He has now been in prison for 14 and a half years.

A graphic showing a breakdown of the crimes committed by IPP prisoners Credit: UNGRIPP/Ministry of Justice/ITV News

Describing the impact of living with an indeterminate sentence, Mr Bidar said: “We are often referred to as the 'forgotten' because we are easily ignored and forgotten by the system. The perpetual state of not knowing and the uncertainty surrounding IPPs becomes a tremendous challenge to cope with." 

He added: “There seems to be no guiding light at the end of the tunnel, no fixed date to work towards, as the goalposts are constantly shifting due to changing legislation. It is disheartening that no one seems to have the knowledge or resources to assist me, making this journey incredibly lonely, isolating, and filled with uncertainty." 

Joshua McRae is also an IPP prisoner who has served 16 years for wounding with intent - originally a four-year IPP sentence.

He told ITV News: “IPP sentences are widely acknowledged as being neglected and overlooked, lacking proper guidance or management. 

“The uncertainty surrounding the duration of our situation is significant, leaving us in a perpetual state of waiting for an outcome that never materialises. 

“It can be immensely challenging to sustain hope, as an individual's well of hope can only extend so far.”

Thomas White was handed an IPP sentence in 2012 and ordered to serve a minimum of two years Credit: Family handout

'He's not fit for purpose anymore' - Clara White's heartbreak

Clara White has spent years of her life campaigning for her brother Thomas White against the IPP sentence.

Her brother was sentenced to a two-year tariff in 2012 for street robbery - missing the abolishment of the sentence by just four months. 

Ms White said: “If he had been sentenced four months later, he would be out now and sane - he wouldn’t be mentally ill the way he is now.”

White has been placed in 16 different prisons over the period of his incarceration - most of which did not offer the progressive courses and programmes he needs to undertake to be released. 

In 2016, Ms White and her family’s concerns about Thomas rose after he began to feel very hopeless.

Clara White is urgently calling on the government to move her brother to a psychiatric facility Credit: ITV News

She said: “He was in Norwich Prison and would ring home speaking in Roman numerals. He was wearing his own bedding, grew his hair and his beard long and said he was Jesus Christ. 

“He walked around the prison as Jesus Christ - bare feet, wearing his own bedding as robes. The prison didn't know what to do with him so they would segregate him to protect him because inmates didn't like that sort of behaviour on their wings. 

“It was disturbing for them but the response was so very cruel.”

Ms White claims her brother was nicknamed Mary Magdalene by inmates and a cruel officer, and despite trying her hardest to get him out of prison, she suffered further under that system since that time.

Recently, her brother has been assessed by a psychiatrist and now Clara is pushing for his release into a medical institution able to help him.

The psychiatric assessment concluded his hallucinations and hearing of voices were a direct result of the IPP sentence and drew a link between White’s condition and evidence of the damage of the IPP sentence compiled in the Justice Select Committee’s report. 

Legal teams have said his condition is evidence of a major breach of Article Three which protects people from torture (mental or physical), inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and deportation or extradition (being sent to another country to face criminal charges) if there is a real risk you will face torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the country concerned. 

Clara said: 'He served his time - he only got two years. And yet, 11 years and three months later he’s still trapped in prison' Credit: ITV News

Thomas has been so impacted he tied a noose around his neck a few weeks ago - a key reason why Clara is pushing so hard for him to be moved into a psychiatric facility.

Speaking of her brother’s current state, she said: “He's not fit for purpose anymore. He served his time - he only got two years. And yet, 11 years and three months later he’s still trapped in prison.”

"Tormented by the life he could have had" - Cherrie Nichol

Campaigner Cherrie Nichol, from Northumberland, is also well aware of the damage of this sentence - her brother Aaron Graham is one of the longest-serving unreleased IPP prisoners having been in prison for almost 18 years.

Graham, now 43, was handed a three-year indeterminate sentence (IPP) for GBH joint enterprise after attacking a man with two other men in 2005 – aged 25. He went into prison in January 2006 on an IPP sentence.

He has been institutionalised to some degree the majority of his life - having grown up in the care system, been in juvenile detention and then in prison during his adult years - and is currently at HMP Garth, in Ulnes Walton, Lancashire - where he has been for the past nine years.

Mrs Nichol, 40, told ITV News: “My brother was heavily traumatised during his time in the care system and prison has traumatised him even more.

"He’s had no time to heal because of the constant punishment. He has done his sentence 10 times over.”

Mrs Nichol added: “My brother has been punished forever and a day for something that realistically he would probably get 18 months and be out now.”

  • Cherrie Nichol speaking to ITV News about the injustice of the sentence and the impact it has had upon her brother Aaron

Speaking about how her brother has never been out of prison, she began to break down, saying: “He’s never had a chance to have a life which is so, so sad. They’ve taken like half of his life which is just…I can’t even explain.”

Roddy Russell at UNGRIPP's IPP exhibition in July Credit: Photo by Andy Aitchison

Roddy Russell

Roddy Russell, from Stafford, has been campaigning on behalf of his brother Robert, known as Rob, who was sentenced for making a threat to kill with an initial tariff of two and half years.

Rob, now aged 47, has now been in custody for 13 years and there is still no end in sight.

During his time in prison, Roddy has noticed the deterioration of his brother’s well-being and mental state - to such an extent that he has spiralled and even attempted to kill himself on at least two occasions Roddy is aware of.

Rob has been incarcerated at HMP Swaleside since 2020, after being arrested on 25 August 2009 and taken to HMP Gloucester a few days later.

  • Roddy Russell speaking about the "devastating" impact the IPP sentence has had upon his brother

Roddy, 55, said: “Rob has tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions - those are the ones I know of from the documentation I have. He also asked another prisoner to throttle him to death and then went into an almost catatonic state where he just wouldn’t engage.”

Roddy explained how his brother had neglected his self-care to such an extreme degree that he became so malnourished and unkempt he was unrecognisable to Roddy when he visited.

Roddy added: “I didn’t even recognise my own brother when I got to the visitor centre - he looked like a depiction of Jesus nailed to the cross - just so dishevelled. He wouldn’t give me any eye contact and I couldn’t have a coherent conversation with him.”

A graphic showing the outcomes of those serving an IPP sentence Credit: UNGRIPP/Ministry of Justice/ITV News

Shirley Debono

Shirley Debono, from Cardiff, has been campaigning against the IPP sentence for more than a decade, drawn to the cause after her son Shaun Lloyd was handed an IPP sentence for street robbery of a mobile phone with no violence. 

Mr Lloyd was sentenced to two years, nine months but ended up staying in for eight years - due to the IPP sentence.

Since his release in February 2014, he has been recalled in 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022. 

Ms Debono, founder of IPP Committee in Action, said: “The worst trauma we’ve both experienced was when he had his first recall. It was the most traumatic feeling we both went through because he knew he was having to go back to prison.”

  • Campaigner Shirley Debono discussing the devastating impact of her son's prison sentence

She said in her work with the campaign, she has known some prisoners who commit suicide because they cannot cope with the trauma of being recalled.

The sentence also has a huge bearing on the family of IPPs.

Ms Debono told ITV News: “Emotionally I’m a wreck. Health-wise I’m at the doctor regularly getting heart monitoring and stuff like that since he didn’t get his parole hearing in December.”

The unfairness of the sentence

Campaigners also say the sentence is unfair and illogical in terms in terms of its cost.

Ms Nichol, who lives on a farm, has calculated the cost of her brother’s time inside institutions since his childhood in care - which has hit a staggering £1.2million to date.

According to the latest estimates, the average cost of a prison place in England and Wales is £46,696 a year. 

A graphic revealing the cost of keeping IPP prisoners behind bars each year Credit: ITV News

  • Cherrie Nichol shares how she has been left heartbroken by everything her brother has missed out on in his life - as well as how he could have changed her life

What are the solutions?

A report by parliament’s Justice Committee last year said IPP prisoners should be resentenced.

But the UK government has rejected this call, prompting committee chairman Sir Bob Neill to criticise the move as a “missed opportunity to right a wrong”.

Sir Bob says enough has not been done to address the issue due to a “lack of political will”.

He added: “There's a risk averseness perhaps down to a fear of the occasional negative headline - whereas in reality, in the majority of these cases, the odds are they will not constitute a significant further threat.

“And in cases where there is a significant risk of further threat, there are means of dealing with them within the normal arrangements. But it just needs some courage on behalf of ministers - to say let’s bite the bullet on this. 

“It’s a classic case where criminal justice policy isn't 'politically sexy', for want of a better word. It's an area that often gets brushed to one side in political debate and in public consciousness and it needs therefore somebody to have the courage to stand up and say ‘Even if it's controversial, I’m going to do this.’”

The Justice Committee’s report published last September called for an independent panel to be appointed to advise on the process of re-sentencing IPP offenders, acknowledging it is likely to be a complex task.

  • Shirley Debono speaks about the personal hell facing families, as well as the prisoners - before she makes a plea to Justice Minister Alex Chalk

In addition, the report called for the current time period after which prisoners can be considered for the termination of their licence after release to be halved from 10 years to five. 

The report says: “Concerns about available community resources for released offenders are valid and need to be taken into consideration. However, the lack of such resources is not a suitable reason for keeping people imprisoned indefinitely.”

The Ministry of Justice published an IPP Action Plan earlier this year which Minister Alex Chalk said would "deliver the best possible opportunities for those serving an IPP sentence to progress towards a safe and sustainable release".

The key principles of the plan include:

  • Prisons will monitor and publish data on how those serving the IPP sentence are progressing through their sentences, whether in custody or the community.

  • Prisons will ensure that those serving an IPP sentence have a sentence plan specifying the required interventions to reduce risk and have access to them.

  • Community provision for and management of those on an IPP licence to give people the best prospect of a future safe and sustainable life outside of the justice system.

  • Prisons will communicate effectively with all stakeholders, including engaging on current plans, activities and outcomes.

Despite the Government's action plan, campaigners claim it is too little too late.

  • Roddy Russell speaking about his lack of trust in the MOJ and the Government's Action Plan

Another key barrier to a solution is that prison and probation staffing in England is approaching dangerously low levels, the Ministry of Justice said last month. 

The comments were published by mistake on a government website as part of an £8m year-long contract awarded to a London company, PeopleScout, to manage the ministry's recruitment marketing.

The Labour Party spotted the wording - which included a warning stating 15% of prisons are expected to have fewer than 80% of the prison staff they need - while in the probation service, a third of regions in England and Wales have fewer than 80% of the necessary probation officers.

Dame Anne said the prison service is suffering from significant staffing problems which has left a trail of "orphans stuck in the system".

Hope for campaigners - a United Nations torture expert criticises "cruel" and "degrading" sentence

A United Nations expert on torture has called for an urgent review into the “cruel” and “degrading” IPP sentence in a move that’s sure to pile pressure on the government.

Special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Alice Jill Edwards said: “The distress, depression and anxiety caused by this scheme is severe for prisoners and their families. For many these sentences have become cruel, inhuman and degrading.

"They have been acknowledged by successive UK Governments and even described as indefensible by a justice minister – yet they persist.”

Dr Edwards added the sentences were imposed against the original intention which was to be used “sparingly” and “only for the most serious crimes and offenders”. 

Therefore she is calling for sentencing to now be assessed on an individual basis “taking into account all relevant factors”.

  • Plea from Cherrie Nichol to the public about her brother Aaron and the IPP system

Her concerns have been echoed by the parliament’s Justice Committee, led by Sir Bob Neill, who describes the ongoing system as “excessive” and “inconsistent with natural justice”.

He told ITV News: “At the end of the day, it is objectionable that someone should have a sentence that is open-ended. That is inconsistent to me with natural justice.”

Sir Bob Neill Credit: Richard Townshend

Sir Bob added the only fair and just long-term solution would be to re-sentence all IPP prisoners and give them a determinate sentence.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We have reduced the number of IPP prisoners by three-quarters since we scrapped the sentence in 2012 and, on top of the mental health training all prison officers receive, we’re improving guaranteed support for IPP prisoners in particular.

"While public protection will always be our priority, we are carefully considering what additional measures might be put in place.”

David Blunkett declined to comment.

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