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‘Grave concern’ over imprisonment for public protection

Ella Rhodes on the inquiry report about the psychological effects of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP).

18 May 2023

By Ella Rhodes

The British Psychological Society and the Probation Institute have supported the recommendations of an inquiry report into Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences, citing the psychological harm they cause. The inquiry, led by the Justice Select Committee, recommended all prisoners serving IPPs should receive a new sentence to address the 'unique injustice' caused by these sentences.

IPP sentences, which have no fixed end date, were introduced in 2003 under the Criminal Justice Act to keep people in prison who 'posed a significant risk of causing harm to the public'. The sentence was abolished in 2012; however, as of June last year there were almost 3,000 IPP prisoners, around 1,500 of whom have never been released and 1,434 who have been recalled to prison.

The inquiry report outlined some of the evidence the committee heard on the psychological impacts of IPP sentences from those serving them and their families, and professionals. Much of the evidence the inquiry heard pointed to a deterioration in mental health as well as a sense of hopelessness. The inquiry report also pointed to a joint submission of evidence it received from 50 psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapists, including BPS members, who had worked with those on IPP sentences and who set out a 'grave concern about the psychological impact of the IPP sentence, and our profession's involvement in it'.

This evidence outlined three key concerns from a psychological point of view – that the legitimacy of IPP sentences rested on the validity of psychological practices, and on the ability to understand and predict risk accurately, and that the sentence undermined psychological professionals' ability to carry out their practice, for example in pushing people serving IPP sentences towards coping strategies which excluded them from receiving help and made it harder to detect genuine signs of risk.

The authors of the evidence also pointed to the psychological harm of IPP sentences: '…recent studies find that people serving an IPP sentence consistently describe mental and emotional deterioration caused by the sentence, including feelings of depression and hopelessness, feeling very anxious, symptoms of paranoia and psychosis, suicidal urges, and feeling fundamentally "changed" for the worse.'

The report recommended greater planning and resources dedicated to the mental health, release and resettlement of people serving IPP sentences. The BPS and Probation Institute welcomed this but highlighted the potential impact of such changes on the staff who work in prisons, including psychologists and probation staff.

The organisations have called for a clear strategy from the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service on improving access to mental health support for IPP prisoners, including transfers to secure hospitals and therapeutic settings.

Dr Nic Bowes, chair of the BPS' Division of Forensic Psychology which developed the Society's response to the inquiry's findings, said the inquiry report symbolised the restoration of hope for those on an IPP sentence. 'We know that IPP sentences cause acute harm to the mental health of those subject to them, fostering a lack of trust in the system that is meant to rehabilitate them. It is a welcome step towards reversing these harms, and creating a system that is focused on rehabilitation and values the mental health of prisoners. It is vital that the government accepts the report's recommendations and commits to resentencing people on IPP sentences as a matter of urgency.'

Read the BPS briefing on IPP sentences.