The UK government has rejected a call for prisoners detained indefinitely to be resentenced, in a move criticised as a “missed opportunity to right a wrong” by the chair of the justice committee.
A report by the cross-party justice committee, published last year, said people stuck in prison under the now abolished imprisonment for public protection (IPP) scheme should be resentenced.
IPP sentences were officially scrapped in 2012. They have been described as “the single greatest stain on our criminal justice system”, but almost 3,000 prisoners remain behind bars in England and Wales after receiving one.
Sir Bob Neill, a Conservative MP and chair of the justice committee, said the government had “missed an opportunity to right a wrong that has left nearly 3,000 people behind”.
“We are not only disappointed with this government response but genuinely surprised,” he said. “The committee recognised that addressing this issue would not be easy – that’s why we recommended that a small, time-limited committee of experts be set up to advise on the resentencing exercise.”
He added there was a growing consensus that resentencing was the only way to “address the injustice of IPP sentences and that this can be done without prejudicing public protection”.
“But the government has not listened. The nettle has not been grasped and, as a result, these people will remain held in an unsustainable limbo,” he said.
The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said the government had rejected resentencing as it “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”.
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the government “should be thoroughly ashamed of this wholly inadequate response to a serious cross-party attempt to right a terrible historic wrong”.
He added the “blanket refusal” to consider resentencing the prisoners “suggests we have a Ministry of Justice in name only”.
“The inadequate response from this government means that any future justice secretary will have to revisit the [report recommendations],” he said. “In this bleak moment, we must keep alive the hope that a more statesmanlike approach will prevail in the end.”
The justice committee report also called on the government to tackle the issue of “recall merry-go-round”, as almost half (1,434) of current IPP prisoners have been recalled to custody after breaching license conditions known for being particularly stringent.
The government rejected the recommendation to reduce the licence period on release from 10 years to five years and said it did “not accept that offenders serving the IPP sentence on licence are being recalled to prison unnecessarily”.
Shirley Debono, from the IPP Committee in Action campaign group, said she feared the mental health of prisoners would deteriorate as a result of government inaction, with research showing high levels of self-harm and some suicides among IPP prisoners.
“This was the last chance, this was the last hope, and if they snatch this hope away from them, they see themselves as being incarcerated for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“If they don’t resentence the IPP prisoners, there’s nowhere else to go. Even for campaigners, what do we do?”
Introduced in 2005, IPP sentences were designed to indefinitely detain serious offenders who were perceived to be a risk to the public, but they were used more widely than expected, including for offenders who committed low-level crimes.
In his response to the report, Raab said the government had already planned a review of its IPP Action Plan, and had now requested the chief inspector of probation to carry out an independent inspection on the proportionality of prisoner recall.
“I have no doubt that the refreshed Action Plan, when finalised, will be a strong driver to build on past achievements and further provide the best possible opportunities for those serving an IPP sentence to progress towards a safe and sustainable release,” he said.
‘It’s like a nightmare
Ishuba Salmon, 43, from Handsworth in Birmingham, has spent over 18 years in prison and said he felt his life had become “like Groundhog Day” since receiving an IPP sentence for conspiracy to rob in 2007.
The judge recommended a sentence of four years and five months, but he was not released until 2018 after a campaign by his family. He was recalled to prison in 2020 after being arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, although the case was eventually dropped.
Three years later, he is still waiting for release.
“Before I was recalled, I was at university studying to become a computer technician,” Salmon said over the phone from Stoke Heath prison. “I was working at the gym as a full-time personal fitness trainer, something that I enjoyed. I was getting to see my daughter. It’s just all been snatched away.
“It’s like a nightmare, every day you wake up and it’s like Groundhog Day. It feels like I’m classed as a lifer and I didn’t kill nobody. I wasn’t even found guilty of the offences I was brought in here for this time. I’m not saying I’m an angel, but come on, 18 years I’m sat down inside prison altogether now.”
His father, Arnold Salmon, said after years of campaigning the family had completely lost faith in the justice system: “They need to let the public see that the system can work. Because at the moment, it’s not working.
“It’s a draconian thing and they just use it to keep people in prison, it seems like. And most of these prisoners have no support, they’ve lost all of their family because of the sentence they’re doing.”
Ishuba Salmon said resentencing so that all IPP prisoners were moved on to set determinate sentences was the only option.
“We need to be given a straight determinate sentence so we know when we’re being released,” he said. “Because that’s why people are killing themselves inside prison because they don’t know where they stand.”