John’s story: rebuilding the life of a child IPP

On 27 April 2023 MPs will debate Justice Committee’s report on the IPP sentence in Westminster Hall.  Since the Committee’s landmark report was published last year, one of my long-standing clients, John, has been released on parole. John (not his real name) has given me permission to share his story in the hope it will inspire some practical ways forward to help other people stuck in prison on an IPP sentence.

I first started working with John almost 14 years ago.

At the time he was a child in prison. He had been given an indeterminate sentence for public protection at the age of 15. The sentence, better known for its infamous acronym, IPP, has since been abolished. The idea behind the sentence was that it would be imposed for the most serious offences that fell short of requiring a life sentence. 

They operate in an almost identical way to life sentences. People on IPPs serve the minimum term required for their punishment. Only once that term is served can people on IPPs be considered for release on licence by the parole board.  The test for release is the same as for a person on a life sentence – the Parole Board must be satisfied that the person no longer needs to be detained for the protection of the public from serious harm. 

Between 2005 and its abolition in 2012, 8,711 IPP sentences were imposed by the courts. Of these, 316 were children. 

John was one of these children. He had been given a minimum term of 10 months.  When the judge sentenced him, it was clear that he hoped this would mean John would have a chance of being released as a child. Little did he know that John would serve that minimum term more than 25 times over. 

John is now in his early thirties and has spent more than half of his entire life in various secure children’s establishments, prisons and mental health institutions. This year he was able to celebrate Mother’s Day with his mum in the community for the first time. At his recent parole board hearing when asked what would be one of the greatest challenges in the community, he said “rebuilding his relationship with his mum”.  I was surprised by this as I knew he was close to his mum and spoke to her almost daily from prison.  But he explained that release was going to be very different because over the last 15 years he had never spent longer than two hours with her face to face. 

His mum and I went to meet John off the train when he was finally released from prison earlier this year. He was a child in a hairy man’s body. He didn’t know to stand on the right on the escalators or that he could use a bank card to tap in and out of the tube. The sheer number of people on public transport was, and, still is, overwhelming. He is only now just learning how to send an email and last week he realised he had no idea how to cook oven chips. Over the next few months, hopefully, he will start to rebuild all the experiences that he missed out on as an adolescent in the community but he will never be able to have them at the right age and stage of development. 

The only reason I was able to successfully argue for John’s release at this latest hearing was because it was the first time we had a decent plan on the table that the Parole Board could release him to.

The very first time I tried to argue for his release over a decade ago, I had identified a therapeutic children’s home that would take him as a young adult and provide him with trauma-related therapy that he desperately needed, as well as education, care and support. But because John had recently turned 18, the local authority refused to fund it. A two-day judicial review hearing did not result in an order for them to do so. A subsequent claim for civil damages for failure to take him into care at an early stage to avoid him being abused as a child was successful.  But the compensation wasn’t enough money to cover his care and accommodation cost in the community.

It was only because he deteriorated so terribly during his time in prison that he qualified for transfer from prison to hospital under the Mental Health Act for treatment.  That meant he became eligible for a package of statutory aftercare that everyone who detained for treatment under the Mental Health Act is entitled to.  It is called the s117 aftercare duty and is designed to make sure that when a person leaves hospital they get the care and support they need in the community from health and social care.  The duty works in coordination with wider statutory services, including probation and multi-agency public protection arrangements, to ensure a person is fully reintegrated safely into their community.

As a result of his period in hospital, where John finally received some much needed therapy and acquired the right to aftercare, we were able to get the local authority and the local health authority to come up with a package of support.  The package included psychiatric oversight, accommodation with onsite support, access to therapy and practical support. Having staff go with him to the shops to buy basic items and to take him to the hardware store to help him buy paint to decorate his flat made all the difference.  These things were overwhelming, but manageable with support.  John was entitled to these aftercare duties under the Mental Health Act because he still needed them, even though he had since been sent back to prison from hospital by the time his parole application was considered.

So far, he’s doing just brilliantly. It is time to make sure that all people serving IPP sentences have the support they need to be safely released.

This blog is an adapted version of a keynote speech given at the launch of Safe and Inclusive Communities at Anglia Ruskin University on 19 April 2023

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