VICE News Investigates the UK’s 4,500 Prisoners Doing Life for Minor Crimes

Thousands of prisoners — many of who committed relatively minor crimes — are stuck in British jails on an obsolete life sentence at an annual cost to the UK taxpayer of more than 119 million pounds, a VICE News investigation has found.

Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) were introduced 10 years ago to keep criminals behind bars until they were no longer deemed a risk to the public, but where their crimes did not warrant a fixed life sentence.

They were scrapped in 2012 after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke admitted they were “unclear, inconsistent and have been used far more than ever intended” — but nothing was done to address the thousands already in prison on a seemingly never-ending sentence.

In an exclusive investigation, VICE News has uncovered the legacy of the IPP sentence. VICE spoke to prisoners, former prisoners, family members, lawyers, and a former judge, analysed government data and prison inspection reports, and issued a raft of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. They found:

* There are 4,612 IPP prisoners remaining in jail three years after the sentences were abolished and not a single one has a set release date.

* Although they were designed for the most dangerous offenders, IPP sentences were given out for relatively minor crimes including affray (fighting in public), minor criminal damage worth less than 20 pounds, and shoplifting.

* Rehabilitation courses prisoners must complete to be released are frequently unavailable.

* Sixteen IPP prisoners have killed themselves since the sentence was abolished and inmates sentenced to IPPs have a higher suicide rate overall.

* Once released from jail, IPP prisoners can spend their life on probation. Since 2012, more than 50 percent of those released have already been recalled.

* Each year it costs the government at least 119 million pounds to house IPP prisoners who have completed their mandatory minimum sentence.

Now, a retired judge and 10-year veteran of the UK’s Parole Board has called on the justice secretary to release IPP inmates who have served their recommended term.

After seven years in practice, the controversial sentences were abolished in 2012 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that prisoners had the right to know how long they were being held for. UK courts stopped handing out the sentences, but the ban did nothing to impact those already serving an IPP.

Watch the VICE News documentary, UK’s Forgotten Prisoners here:


At HMP Whatton, the prison that houses the most IPP prisoners, some people are left waiting for 14 months just to get onto one over-subscribed course. At another, HMP Wymott, inspectors found “insufficient places on offending behavior programs and long waiting lists.”

Required courses can also be added to a prisoner’s sentence plan at any time, meaning the goalposts are constantly moving.

“It’s a Catch-22,” explained Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, “if the only way you can demonstrate that you don’t present a risk is to do courses, and the courses aren’t available, or if you maintain your innocence you’re not allowed to do the courses, or if you have mental health need or a learning disability you’re still not allowed to do those courses… then you’re completely stuck.”