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Irredeemably flawed? The IPP prisoner scandal and the death of Matthew Price

Warning – this article contains distressing content. I have used Matthew’s own words because he wrote publicly and he wanted people to understand the pain of the IPP sentence.





My name is Emma McClure. I am a solicitor and I represent people before the Parole Board of England and Wales. I used to say I represent prisoners but these days not everyone I represent is in prison; some people who the Parole Board deal with are in the community with you and I. I am going to tell you about one of them: my client, Matthew.


This is a story about how you try to keep going and keep motivated when things seem to be going backwards or look bleak.


It is also a story about what happens when you fail to listen to evidence, and the unintended consequences that can arise when policy decisions are poorly thought out or institutions refuse to change their mind.


In relation to Matthew, I had new experience of being on the other side of a court proceeding. I am used to being the advocate, asking questions of witnesses and making submissions in hearings. But back in January, I was the one being questioned as I gave evidence at the inquest into Matthew’s death.


Coroner’s courts are courts which investigate unnatural deaths. They are inquiries, rather than criminal or civil trials, with a judge - known as the coroner - who will investigate a matter and arrive at a conclusion about the circumstances of a death.


They aren’t designed to apportion blame – though criminal proceedings can be instigated as a result of a coroner’s findings. A famous example of that would be the, ultimately unsuccessful, prosecutions that followed the inquests into the Hillsborough disaster in 2016.



A coroner has raised concerns about the mental health of offenders serving indefinite sentences after a man died.


Matthew Price took his own life while on licence under an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence 10 years after his release from jail.


Mr Price, 48, who spent three years in jail after being convicted of causing grievous bodily harm with intent, died on 16 June 2023.



The article goes on to mention how Matthew died which I am choosing to omit.


IPP sentences are a type of life sentence given out between 2005 and 2012, originally part of Labour’s attempts to appear tough on crime in the late 90s and 00s. They were given out for a very wide range of offences, and often had tariffs measured in months or even days.


The tariff is the minimum period someone has to serve before the Parole Board considers whether the person is safe to be released. Life sentences used to be designed for the most serious of offences, like murder. For IPPs, these were for offences less serious than murder, and it was envisaged by the law-makers that they would apply to a few hundred people; a small but persistent group of serious offenders. During sentencing, the judge had to first decide if the conduct warranted a standard life sentence and if it didn’t, they would go on to consider an IPP.


IPP sentences were given out for 153 different kinds of criminal offence. Initially, judges used no discretion as to when they were given out. A lot of these offences were comparatively minor and weren’t necessarily violent. If a person ticked the right offence boxes, they automatically got an IPP. Instead of the anticipated hundreds of IPPs, judges gave out thousands. More than 8,000 were given out over 7 years.


This was a real problem, because there was no corresponding increase in resource in prisons to enable these prisoners to address the reasons for their offending. Many prisoners got stuck. Many are still stuck, well over a decade later. There are still around 1,200 IPP prisoners who have never been released. It is now 19 years since IPP sentences began. A large proportion of IPP prisoners had tariffs of less than two years; some were measured in months or days. Even those who were given longer tariffs have served at least twice as long as those terms.


IPP sentences were deemed unlawful in 2012, and were therefore abolished, but this abolition was not retrospective. Everyone who received an IPP sentence still had one.


There have been growing calls since then to get rid of the sentence entirely. Successive governments, and Justice Secretaries - including David Blunkett, who was instrumental in introducing the sentence - have recognised it as a stain on the justice system. But, once out of office, they are no longer able to do anything about it other than to express regret or call for action from their successors.


There has been a lot of focus on those who have found themselves stuck in prison, or in the revolving door of recall to prison. They must “prove” they are safe before being released, but the lack of resources devoted to supporting them has resulted in people losing hope and in many cases losing their minds. Many have become intensely frustrated and have acted out, which, in turn, damaged their chances of release. They have got stuck in a cycle of hopelessness. Many, many of them have at this point taken their own lives in despair. There is a report by the Independent Monitoring Board which captures this painful cycle.


If an IPP prisoner does manage to get released, they remain on licence, where the slightest perceived infraction can result in being recalled to prison.


It is possible for an IPP prisoner to apply for their licence to be terminated 10 years after their first release. The right to apply became an automatic right in 2022.


There was a Justice Select Committee report completed in September 2022 – a cross party report that looked at 17 years of evidence about this sentence. This declared the sentence to be ‘irredeemably flawed’ and recommended that all IPP prisoners should be resentenced. This was rejected by the government and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in February 2023. The select committee also recommended that the 10 year period before IPP prisoners could apply for the termination of their licence should be cut to 5. This was also rejected by the government.


So back to my client, Matthew. He had one of these sentences. Unlike many, he had been out of prison for a very long time. Very nearly the 10 years required before being able to apply for termination. He was in the community. He was working; he hadn’t committed any further offences. So, what happened? Why has the coroner linked Matthew’s IPP sentence with his death?


I could explain what happened, but I would actually prefer to let Matthew do that in his own words – he sent this message several weeks before he died, and it is how I came to be his solicitor and to help him with his application to terminate his licence. It is edited slightly for length:


 

“Back in 2010, at the age of 35, I committed a Section 18 wounding on my friend.


There was no justification whatsoever for my actions and my friend should never have been subjected to that whatever the circumstances. I still feel bad to this day for the impact my actions had on my friend and my family and others.


After pleading guilty, I was sentenced to prison for the first and only time in my life on a IPP sentence with a 3 year tariff.


In my time in custody, I never really did any accredited offending behaviour courses… this was because I was below the required risk threshold to meet the criteria for such courses but spent my time doing other positive activities instead, including gaining employment… and was released in November 2013.


I continued to make good progress in the community and had the supervision element of my licence suspended in August 2019.”



I will just note here that this means that he didn’t have to keep in touch with probation anymore – he could still be recalled to prison, but he wasn’t being closely supervised.



“The never-ending nature of when or if my sentence will ever come to an end eventually took its toll on my mental health and after trying to throw myself off a bridge in March 2020 before being talked down by police. (Even the police didn't appear to be familiar with the sentence I said I was under and it was as if they thought I was imagining that I was under a sentence that couldn't be true).”



I note here that the police officer who called me to ask if I knew why Matthew may have taken his own life was surprised to hear that these sentences were still a thing.



“Following this, I spent 3 months in a mental health hospital, had my medication restarted, and had the supervision element of my licence reinstated. On being discharged from hospital, I received support from community mental health nurses. Their support and medication helped me greatly but in the greater scheme of things, I knew being under mental health treatment was going to impact greatly on the chances of my sentence ever been brought to an end.”



I want to flag that as a result of his mental health crisis, Matthew was put back on supervision. He was essentially punished for having poor mental health.



“Eventually I came off medication gradually and discharged myself from this support that was helping me because I knew I had to try and find a way to pretend I didn't still have mental health issues when really I did.


Since August 2022, I've had to pretend that losing my father hasn't affected me as much as it really has, as well as pretend I don't have mental health issues when I do, and not to go back on medication because seeking mental health support and being on medication can be classed as poor coping and behaviour by HM Prison & Probation Service in assessments.”



And it was – I have seen those assessments.



“The only way I can keep my risks LOW is to live this pretence that everything is ok when I know it's not.


The truth is, I need mental health support and I feel I need to be back on medication to be able to cope with this sentence but I'm too scared to ask for it because doing so will go against my chances of ever bringing my sentence to an end.


…I'm stuck in a never-ending cycle of which suicide is quite possibly really the only way out. Asking for help will go against me, not asking for help will most likely kill me.


I've never denied my offending and taken full responsibility.


Of course I needed to go to prison as a result of my actions but how can it be right that I'm being expected to cope on a irredeemably flawed sentence, that's inhumane and was abolished in 2012 and also be on a potentially lifelong licence that might never end, and feel fearful to ask for mental health support help.


…The fact is the never-ending and never knowing nature of this sentence feeds poor mental health.


Even those on whole life orders or on any other sentence at least have a sentence that brings clarity for both victims and offenders of the sentence that's being served.


Even if they'd hung me there would have been a definite ending.


The truth is that this long abolished IPP sentence has proved to be capital punishment through the back door in many cases with those who have seen taking their own lives as the only way out growing rapidly recently.


This is a cry for help because this never-ending sentence and the not knowing has crushed and broken me and I don't know what to do for the best anymore.


I've now been released from prison for almost 10 years, yet I'm no nearer knowing when or if this nightmare will ever end.”


 

Matthew died four weeks after sending that email to a large number of people, including the current Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk; members of the JSC; his probation officer; and several law firms - including mine, which is how he became my client.


Given I had been representing Matthew, he had messaged people with my details prior to his death, and as I was the last person to speak to him, I was asked by the coroner to provide a witness statement. I wanted to give the best evidence I could, and so I provided the coroner with the email above, the Justice Select Committee report, and a recent report of the Independent Monitoring Board of prisons which had examined the welfare of IPP prisoners.


I also had a response from the Ministry of Justice to an email sent by my boss, to all of the recipients of Matthew’s original email, informing them that he had died. Matthew had received encouraging responses from many of the JSC and peers from the House of Lords but nothing from the Secretary of State or his officials. The response from the Ministry of Justice was generic, and wrongly assumed Matthew had been in prison when he died.


I was told that I wasn’t needed for the inquest hearing itself, but I felt it was important for me to go anyway - for Matthew, for his family and maybe for all the other IPP prisoners out there. I felt it was important to show up. Matthew may have died, but there are still thousands of other Matthews still out there.


I’m very glad I did, because the coroner had a lot of questions for me about my statement, and about other aspects of the evidence he was considering. I did my best to answer and to explain the wider background about the IPP sentence. I could not have done this had I decided not to attend the inquest.


The result of the inquest was that the coroner issued what is known as a Regulation 28, or Prevention of Future Deaths report. This is something that a coroner can issue when the evidence they have been presented gives rise to concern that there could be future deaths unless action is taken by the body that the report is directed to. In this case, the SSJ.


The report included this:


The MATTERS OF CONCERN are as follows. It was apparent from the evidence that I heard and read at the inquest that there are serious concerns about the welfare of individuals who remain subject to IPP sentences. For example, the Independent Monitoring Boards (‘IMB’) completed a report with key findings entitled ‘The impact of IPP sentences on prisoners’ wellbeing’ in May 2023. This report was written following the rejection by the government of the recent Justice Select Committee’s recommendation for a re-sentencing exercise to take place for anyone serving an IPP sentence.

Whilst the key findings of the IMB report are focused upon the impact upon serving prisoners and the prevention of recall, I was deeply concerned about the evidence I heard in relation to the clear impact that the on-going IPP sentence had had on Mr Price. He had served a three year tariff and at the time of his death, he had been released back into the community for nearly ten years

Mr Price was anxious about the ever-present potential for recall to prison. Furthermore, he had conveyed in communications to others that he felt that seeking help with his mental health by way of support and medication might count against him when seeking to be successful in discharging the IPP. Whilst Mr Price was engaged with legal support in navigating the review process, the on-going impact of uncertainty of being on an IPP sentence was clearly apparent.

As a consequence of undertaking Mr Price’s inquest, the on-going wellbeing of those serving IPP sentences, be that in prison estate or in the community, is a matter of concern to me as a coroner.

The Ministry of Justice is fully apprised of the IPP context and whilst matters have been raised by the IMB, I am concerned that specific focus upon the welfare of individuals living in the community should be appraised by those who may be able to take appropriate steps to further support an evidently vulnerable section of society.



The Secretary of State is required to respond to the coroner. He doesn’t necessarily have to do anything, but he does have to respond. At the time of writing, there has been no official response, but an MOJ spokesperson has responded to the BBC article about Matthew’s death:


“Our thoughts remain with the friends and family of Matthew Price. We have taken decisive action to curtail licence periods to give rehabilitated people the opportunity to move on with their lives and have mental health support in place for IPP offenders living in the community who are at risk of self-harm or suicide."


That is a reference to the recent announcement, following Matthew’s death, that the government are proposing to change the licence period rules. There is an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that is currently crawling through parliament, which will reduce the period before the IPP licence can be terminated from 10 years to 3 years. If the Parole Board reject the application, the person under licence needs to avoid being recalled for a further 2 years for their licence to be terminated automatically.


Matthew’s IPP sentence would have been terminated in 2018 under the proposed new rules. The announcement of this proposed change came a couple of weeks before Matthew’s inquest; by that time, the Ministry of Justice were already aware of his death.


The first sentence of the MOJ response to the BBC article says that their thoughts are with Matthew’s friends and family. Matthew didn’t have any friends. His offence had been against a friend, and so he deliberately avoided making friends for fear that something would happen to lead him to be returned to prison. His fear of returning to prison was so strong that he was condemned to a lonely, seemingly-endless period of supervision in the community, under constant threat of being pulled back to prison - on a sentence that had been abolished before he was even released from prison.


Progress on righting this irredeemably flawed policy is very slow and painful. I am not going to presume that my assisting with Matthew’s inquest has moved the dial, but it is important that we do what we can, when we can, to move it - however slowly, however painfully. Even where things seem to be going backwards, or we lose people.


I am aware of at least one other community IPP death since Matthew’s. We need to keep showing up, even at the darkest points.


Matthew wanted me to tell people what had happened to him and why. I hope I have done an adequate job.


When life is difficult, Samaritans are on call – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritans.org or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.



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