MORE than one in five prisoners at Erlestoke Prison have no idea when they will be released.
Figures obtained by our sister paper, the Swindon Advertiser, through a Freedom Of Information request revealed that 68 of the 385 prisoners at HMP Erlestoke are serving a type of sentence known as an IPP, which stands for imprisonment for public protection.
Introduced under the last Labour government in 2005, the IPP scheme allowed judges to decide that certain people would not be released from prison, even once they had served the appropriate amount of time for their crime, until a parole board decided to let them out.
Judges were only supposed to use their IPP power for individuals who they deemed posed “a significant risk of serious harm” to the public.
But in practice the sentences were doled out far more often than anticipated. Some 8,711 men and women were given IPP sentences before the coalition government abolished the scheme in 2012.
The then Prison Minister Crispin Blunt said at the time: “We have 6,000 IPP prisoners, well over 2,500 have exceeded their tariff point.
“Many cannot get on courses because our prisons are wholly overcrowded and unable to address offending behaviour. That is not a defensible position.”
But five years on, prisons are still packed with prisoners who have no release date. Many are now years past the point at which a judge said they should be considered for release.
At HMP Erlestoke, Wiltshire’s only prison, 58 of the 68 IPP prisoners are over their tariff; 48, 70 per cent, are more than two years over.
Of these 68 men, only 11 have been given a date to go before the parole board and not a single one has been granted a release date.
Liz Gwinnell, a Melksham-based solicitor with law firm Duncan Lewis, is a specialist in prison law and has represented a number of IPP prisoners at HMP Erlestoke.
“I call the IPP the sentence that turns the light off,” said Ms Gwinnell. “It takes away hope.
“It is slightly better now because more is known about it but in the early years it was dreadful.
“It was mostly young men who were imprisoned under the IPP - yes they needed a prison sentence and they needed to be punished but they suddenly found themselves facing something they just didn’t have a clue about. They really lose hope.”
Liz said that over the years, the problems associated with the backlog of IPP prisoners have changed repeatedly.
At times there have been difficulties securing place for prisoners on the relevant rehabilitation courses to demonstrate progress to the parole board, at other times there have been delays in securing a date for the parole hearings themselves.
At present there are issues around unnecessary delays with hearings being delayed and deferred and the requirement for psychological reports and similar documentation not being outlined early enough in the process.
Liz said that improving administrative efficiency, even down to beginning a day’s parole hearing schedule at 9am rather than 10.30am, could play a part in reducing the backlog - but like many she acknowledges that more fundamental changes are probably needed.
Various ways of reducing the backlog have been mooted in recent years as the pressure of the IPP prisoner population has continued to have an impact on the already-strained prison estate.
Former justice secretary Michael Gove has suggested that using executive powers to order the release of large swathes of the prisoners serving IPP sentences who have already passed their tariff could be an option.
Nick Hardwick, chairman of the Parole Board for England and Wales and formerly Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, has suggested reversing the burden of proof so that it is for the state to show that a prisoner remains a risk to the safety of the community and not the prisoner.
He argues that such a move would speed up progress and allow more over-tariff prisoners to be released sooner.
But until these changes are actually implemented, the prisoners in IPP limbo at Erlestoke and across the prison estate are left to deal with all the added complications and hurdles that their predicament presents.
One of the worst examples of the mental strain that IPP sentences can place on a prisoner came in 2010, when a 25-year-old IPP prisoner, one of Liz Gwinnell’s first client’s at HMP Erlestoke, was found hanged from a bedsheet in his cell.
Dan Smith was given a tariff of 18 months but at the time of his death he had already served three years. His mother told an inquest into his death that he had “lost all hope of release”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We are working hard to reduce the backlog of hearings involving IPP prisoners.
"We have set up a new unit within the Ministry of Justice to tackle this issue and are working with the Parole Board to improve the efficiency of the process.
"Our efforts are focussed on giving IPP prisoners the support, opportunities and motivation they need to progress more quickly when they are reviewed by the parole board so that they have the best possible prospect for securing release.”