UK: UN torture expert calls for urgent review of over 2,000 prison tariffs under discredited IPP sentencing scheme
30 August 2023
GENEVA (30 August 2023) – A UN torture expert today called on the UK Government to begin an urgent review of sentences imposed on prisoners held indefinitely under the widely discredited and now abandoned Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) system.
“The Government must step up its efforts to ensure rehabilitation opportunities for all those affected, as well as access to adequate and appropriate reparations,” said Alice Jill Edwards, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
At the end of last year, nearly 2,900 people were still serving IPP sentences. A recent UK Parliamentary report highlighted the significant psychological harm suffered by these prisoners – including high levels of self-harm, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and actual suicides. IPP prisoners are reportedly two and a half times more likely to self-harm than the general prison population.
“The distress, depression and anxiety caused by this scheme is severe for prisoners and their families,” the UN expert said.
She expressed serious alarm about reports of suicides – government figures published in 2021 indicate 65 IPP prisoners had died by suicide.
“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,” said the Special Rapporteur.
IPP sentences were indeterminate sentences handed down by courts in England and Wales between 2005 and 2012. They were used for offenders who were considered to pose a significant risk of causing serious harm to the public until they no longer represented such a risk. When first introduced, these sentences were mandatory in all cases of conviction for a ‘serious offence’, which included more than 50 specified crimes. This led to a larger than expected number of people being sentenced under the scheme (8,711 in total). The cancellation of the scheme was not retrospective.
The torture expert, who has communicated to the UK government along with other key independent experts, stressed that the programme violates basic principles of fair justice and the rule of law. Those who have been released into the community but remain under the IPP regime can be sent back to detention at any time.
“As a general rule, indeterminate sentences should be used sparingly and only for the most serious crimes and offenders,” the expert said. “Sentencing should be assessed on an individual basis, taking into account all relevant factors.”
Edwards said that for years there had been insufficient and inappropriate resources to manage IPP prisoners effectively, with few having access to the rehabilitation programmes needed to demonstrate a reduction in their risk to the public.
“Without these safeguards, we are left with the mess that is the UK’s IPP system, where people are held without being able to prove that they deserve to be released. It is therefore not surprising that many IPP prisoners are in a much worse mental state than at the time they were sentenced,” Edwards said.
Dr. Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.
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