The Pains of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) for Family Members

This post provides a brief summary of emerging findings from the research project ‘‘Exploring the Secondary Pains of Indeterminate Imprisonment: The case of IPP families’ and is a shortened version of a piece for the August edition of Inside Time (

The indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence has rightly been described as one of the least carefully planned and implemented pieces of legislation in the history of British sentencing. Readers of Inside Time will know that there continues to be a large number of people imprisoned on IPP sentences despite its abolition in 2012, either still serving their original sentence or having been recalled to prison. There have been a number of important reports examining the problems caused by the sentence, but the experiences of families of IPP prisoners has so far not been explored.


Our research ‘Exploring the Secondary Pains of Indeterminate Imprisonment: The case of IPP families’ has begun to fill this gap. We wanted to understand how families were affected by the IPP sentence; the support they may have received; and involvement in campaigns relating to the IPP sentence. In order to do this, we conducted in-depth interviews with 15 family members of IPP prisoners and received 119 responses to an online survey.


Our detailed findings will be published later in the year, but we can share some of the most important themes here. Overarching themes were injustice, uncertainty and hope. With the sentence having been abolished but no legislative action taken to address the existing IPP population, families understandably felt that this was an unjust situation. One respondent told us, “I feel bitter towards the justice system knowing worse crimes are committed with much lesser sentences”. Families also emphasised the difficulties created by the uncertainty of the open-ended sentence: this raised substantial emotional challenges, with many families feeling as if they were serving the sentence with their relative. As one family member put it, ‘The not knowing is the hardest part, we have no end date, no light at the end of the tunnel’. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, families reported that release brought its own difficulties. Some spoke of the constant fear of recall, of ‘living on the edge’.


The influential Farmer Review has recently made clear that the positive role to be played by families should be taken much more seriously by the criminal justice system. It is certainly the case that families can often give valuable support to an IPP prisoner’s progression. Unfortunately our research highlighted numerous practical challenges faced by families of IPP prisoners. These ranged from poor communication and inconsistencies in policies between prisons to a lack of contact due to distance. For example one respondent said that ‘The whole process of dealing with the prison service has been very inefficient and frustrating.’ Many families felt that probation should be doing a lot more to ensure progression towards release. Others spoke of long delays in the parole process, deferred hearings, and this all making a ‘really, really hard emotional journey’ even more difficult.


Many families put in a great deal of work to support their relative. While many family members are pleased that they can take action to help their relative, this does present challenges and put pressures on them. Some families told us that just having some recognition by relevant organisations (for example probation and parole) of their actions and how important they are would make a big difference to them. In addition to the work required of family members, the IPP sentence also often puts strain on family relationships. Many family members also reported serious health problems relating to the stresses and strains of the situation described above.


This research will provide further evidence to support arguments for additional legislative action to be taken in relation to IPP sentences. The majority of IPP prisoners are over tariff, and many have now served 3-4 times their tariff period. Proposals such as a ‘sunset clause’, where IPP prisoners cannot be imprisoned for longer than the maximum available sentence length for the offence committed, remain attractive. There are also steps that can, and should, be taken in relation to the licence period. Most obviously shortening its default length (from life); reducing the time from which a prisoner can apply for it to be lifted (from 10 years); and changing what happens when an IPP prisoner is recalled to prison (for example not returning them onto the original IPP sentence, or changing the release test for their subsequent parole hearing). Thankfully organisations like the Parole Board and the National Probation Service are increasingly aware of the important role played by families, and their need for advice and support. We hope that our research will help to move this agenda forwards and in particular ensure that the specific issues relating to IPP prisoners are addressed.

Dr Harry Annison, Dr Rachel Condry and Anna Leathem

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