On the afternoon of 12 April a prisoner climbed onto the roof of Strangeways in Manchester. Joe Outlaw, aka Chris Attiller Hordosi, has been incarcerated in a series of high security jails across the UK since being convicted for robbery and served with an indeterminate sentence in 2011. The 36-year-old surrendered to the prison authorities twelve hours later, having painted his message on the roof in large white letters: ‘FREE IPPZ.’
Imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences were introduced in the mid-2000s by David Blunkett, at the peak of New Labour’s ‘tough on crime’ posturing. Indefinite sentences would supposedly protect the public from the most dangerous and violent offenders by setting a minimum tariff but no maximum. Ninety-six offences qualified for the sentence, from GBH and robbery to various sexual crimes. Once the minimum term had expired, the Parole Board would decide if the offender was ready to be released (with 99 years of strict probation to follow). They were, in theory, only to be used in exceptional cases.
The government expected nine hundred or so IPP sentences to be handed down. Instead, 8711 were passed between 2005 and 2013. People were sentenced without a release date for crimes including affray, phone theft and criminal damage under £20. Over the last few years I have spoken with many IPP prisoners and their families. A Cardiff man was given a 33-month minimum tariff for committing a street robbery in 2005 aged 18. He was released in 2014 after years of rapidly declining mental health and self-harm and has been recalled to prison twice in the years since, because of incidents relating to a drug addiction he developed inside. It is difficult to imagine the strain and hopelessness of being incarcerated without an end in sight. Self-harm is common and there have been 81 IPP suicides in prison since 2005.
The sentence was formally abolished in 2012, after the European Court of Human Rights ruled IPP to be ‘arbitrary and therefore unlawful’. Intense criticism had come from left, right and centre (David Blunkett has since acknowledged his ‘culpability’). Kenneth Clarke was the justice secretary who pushed the abolition of IPP through and he has remained vocal in his opposition to the ‘ridiculous’ and ‘immoral’ sentences.
But the move didn’t apply retroactively. As of September 2022, 1437 IPP prisoners were still languishing in British prisons without a release date (over six hundred of them have served a decade and more beyond their original minimum tariff). Recall rates are also high, with a similar number having returned to prison after their eventual release. None of this is new. So why has nothing been done to right a historic and still unfolding injustice of which there is genuine cross party acknowledgment?
In February the government rejected plans to resentence the thousands of IPP prisoners still inside. According to the then justice secretary, Dominic Raab, resentencing ‘could lead to the immediate release of many offenders who have been assessed as unsafe for release by the Parole Board, many with no period of supervision in the community’. The blanket refusal, according to the head of the Prison Reform Trust, was shameful. The Conservative chair of the justice committee said the government had ‘missed an opportunity to right a wrong that has left nearly three thousand people behind’.
This cruel failure is only one reflection of the current political posturing over ‘law and order’. Labour and the Conservatives have traded insults and soundbites over one another’s perceived ‘softness’ on crime, with a dismaying amount of airspace and faux outrage devoted to farcical attack ads suggesting Rishi Sunak doesn’t want to jail child abusers, or to counter salvos on Keir Starmer’s record as director of public prosecutions. And while they’re engaging in such juvenile point scoring and sloganeering, the criminal justice system is in crisis.
The headline figures are uniformly dismal. Recorded crime is on the rise and the courts have an unprecedented backlog, a situation only partly attributable to the lingering effects of the pandemic. Rape detection rates are the lowest on record, legal aid has been slashed and the prison system has degenerated into endemic violence and squalor. Yet the two largest political parties are content to squabble over the reintroduction of ASBOs.
Raab resigned from the cabinet last week over bullying allegations. The Prison Reform Trust has called on his replacement, Alex Chalk, ‘to revisit the inadequate response of the government to the justice committee’s authoritative report on the IPP sentence’.
When Chris Attiller Hordosi was sentenced in 2011, he was told that he’d have to serve a minimum of six years, reduced to four-and-a-half on appeal. The intervening 12 years have seen bouts of serious self-harm, as well as charges related to his trashing his cells in various prisons. After his retreat from the roof of Strangeways, his lawyer was quoted in the Manchester press describing the ‘vicious cycle’ his client was stuck in: ‘there was no light at the end of the tunnel.’ A prison spokesperson was also quoted to assure the public that the prisoner would face his extra punishment in due course.