Today’s guest post is by Neill Harvey-Smith. Neill works for the Church of England in Lichfield. He writes in a personal capacity and tweets @nhs999.
It is wrong that people who have served their time should remain in prison, if they are required to demonstrate they are safe to release, but denied the means to prove it. You cannot jump through a hoop if there is nobody holding it.
The Bishop of Lichfield regularly visits people in prison. He told me recently about a particularly intelligent and engaging Somali prisoner he met, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, who has taught himself near-perfect English.
What a quick learner, I thought.
It turns out last Christmas was his 9th in prison.
In 2003, the government introduced Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences. The idea was that an IPP sentence would allow the judge to set a tariff, and once that had expired, it would be for the Parole Board to decide when the risk of re-offending had been reduced to a point where it was safe to release the prisoner. The intention was that a few hundred high-risk offenders would receive IPPs. In fact, courts used them much more often, sometimes with tariffs as low as 28 days.
In 2012, the government took the positive step of abolishing IPP sentences. Yet around 5,500 IPP prisoners remain within the system. Nearly two-thirds of those 5,500 prisoners are past their tariff.
At the current release rate of about 400 a year, it could take a further nine years to clear the backlog.
It is difficult for a prisoner to prove that they are safe to release. They need to go through an Offending Behaviour Programme which has insufficient places, and carries exclusion criteria which prevent some with learning difficulties or mental health issues from enrolling. The Parole Board is under enormous pressure, with a hugely increased workload.
The Bishop of Lichfield is making a speech in a House of Lords debate today on this issue, furthering two suggestions. Firstly, that the prison governor, not the Parole Board, should make the decision on a move to open prison conditions, which is a requirement to test risk before release can be considered. This is already the practice with those on determinate sentences and might speed up the process. Secondly, the bishop calls for the reinstatement of the right to legal aid for IPP prisoners in relation to their re-categorisation decisions.
IPP prisoners have committed crimes of which there are victims. The risk of further offending must not be taken lightly. But as Christians, we know we are all guilty of sin. Hebrews 13:3 says “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body.“ Prisoners are not a ‘they’ whose rights can be forgotten, but a ‘we’ that we are called to love, however hard it is to do, and however much easier it is to turn our heads away. When Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons describe the impact of IPP sentences as ‘Kafka-esque’, we need to listen and respond.
It is wrong for people who have served their sentence to remain in prison, if they are required to demonstrate they are safe to release, but denied the means to prove it. You cannot jump through a hoop if there is nobody holding it. Let us look again at this area and examine ways to speed up the process, protecting the public while allowing the right decisions to be made in a more timely way.