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The hopelessness of IPP sentences

At the start of 2020 there were 2,223 people in prison serving IPP sentences, despite the fact that they’d been abolished in 2012. A sentence with no end date is brutal and many have taken their own lives due to the hopelessness of their situation. Susan was given a minimum term of 15 months but was still in prison 11.5 years later.

I was sentenced to five years in prison following my involvement in a tax fraud. I’d never been in any trouble with the police prior to this and the conviction came about due to some really bad business decisions I’d made. However, whatever the reason I’d still broken the law and it was right that I was punished.

Nobody can imagine what prison is going to be like, any insight we have we get from TV dramas or documentaries. I was 38 when I went to prison and, as I waited to be ‘processed’ I remember being absolutely terrified. I knew I’d be out in 2.5 years but I didn’t know how I was going to cope and I was convinced that I’d never laugh or smile during that time.

The reality was very different. If you keep your head down and do your time, then it’s bearable. The boredom and being away from my family were the worst things but I made some incredibly special friends; friends that I’m still in contact with to this day. We supported each other and although we all experienced bad days when the tears came quickly and easily we also laughed a lot.

One of the biggest eye openers for me was the amount of young women who were in prison as a result of issues with drink, drugs or their mental health. For some, prison was a godsend, a chance to get clean, to get help and to start seeing hope for the future. Sadly for others, prison meant that their mental health deteriorated even more and self-harming was pretty common place.

It was in prison that I first came across IPP sentences – Imprisonment for Public Protection. These are a form of indeterminate sentence with a minimum jail term but no maximum term. I regularly heard girls refer to them as an ‘In Prison Permanently’ sentence which perhaps gives you some idea of how long people end up staying in prison.

I met Susan (not her real name) on my second day when we were queuing up for dinner. Her first words were:

Don’t get the beef stew, it’s worse than dog food.

I didn’t see Susan again for several weeks. She later told me that she’d been put in the ‘Seg’ (the Care and Separation Unit) after she’d ‘kicked-off’ at an officer. Rows and time in the ‘Seg’ were regular occurrences for Susan as were incidents of self-harming which often led to us all being locked in our cells whilst she received medical attention.

Four months into my sentence and I got a job as a wing cleaner along with Susan. We both worked hard and got through the work quickly which gave us a chance to have a tea-break. It was then, when there were just the two of us that I started to see the real Susan. She told me that she’d been given an IPP sentence with a minimum term of 15 months, but she’d already been in prison for 3.5 years and wouldn’t be released until the Parole Board gave their permission. She’d been addicted to drink and drugs and already had several convictions for shoplifting, possession and violence before her IPP sentence but she was clean and was starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

During those tea breaks we spoke about everything and I came to know a bright, funny, intelligent young woman with the same hopes and dreams as anybody else her age.

2.5 years on as I was preparing for release Susan was still in prison. However, she was a lot less positive about the future and her release and she’d started spending a lot more time alone in her cell becoming increasingly isolated.

I wrote to her many times after I’d left prison but never received a response and after 18 months or so, I gave up trying – I wish I hadn’t.

Five years after leaving prison and my life was ticking along nicely. I’d got a job which offered me plenty of opportunity to work overtime and I’d started putting some money into a savings account so I could go on holiday. Having decided on a destination I started trawling the internet for deals when a BBC news item caught my eye. Something about IPP sentences.

I clicked on the link and halfway down the page were three photographs of three young women; one of them was Susan. As I began to read I discovered that the story was about the impact of IPP sentences on women but shockingly, all three women in the photographs had taken their own lives.

Susan’s mum had been interviewed by the journalist and explained how after being in prison for 11.5 years, her daughter had given up all hope of ever being released and couldn’t bear the thought of spending one more year in prison. She’d killed herself in her cell on 31 December.

I couldn’t believe that the bright, funny, intelligent young woman I’d known had felt so abandoned and let down by the system. Susan’s mum couldn’t have put it better when she said:

To live without hope is to cease to live.

By Denise (name changed to protect identity)

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