A BED FOR LIFE

One of the many memorable individual stories in the superb 1990s BBC drama ‘Our Friends in the North’ was the decline and fall of the character Geordie Peacock, played by Daniel Craig. The son of a mentally ill and violent father, Geordie flees his native Newcastle and eventually tastes the good life as the right-hand man of a Soho porn baron played by Malcolm McDowell; as with the other characters in the series, we follow Geordie’s trials and tribulations from the 60s to the 90s, but Geordie’s journey is an especially traumatic one as he gradually slides into alcoholism and begins to exhibit traits inherited from his father. After a spell living on the streets, Geordie sets fire to his bed in a homeless shelter and receives a seemingly disproportionate life sentence for his moment of madness.

I only reference what is one of my favourite British TV dramas of all time due to the fact that news broke today of a man whose sentence for a virtually identical act of arson is poised to be curtailed. Like the fictitious Geordie Peacock, 32-year-old James Ward from Nottinghamshire has suffered from mental health issues, though when he set fire to his bed it was in a prison cell. He was behind bars serving a 22-month sentence in 2006 for Actual Bodily Harm following a fight with his father; on the eve of release, he set the mattress in his prison cell alight and was then resentenced under the now-scrapped Imprisonment for Public Protection scheme. The additional sentence was for a minimum of 10 months. Only 11 years later is Ward finally about to be released.

Imprisonment for Public Protection – IPP for short – was one of the last of the draconian Blair Government’s endlessly damaging additions to the Law; introduced in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, it came into effect in 2005 as a means of keeping prisoners inside whose crimes weren’t serious enough to warrant a life sentence but who were regarded as too dangerous to be let loose on society. Indeterminate sentences were nothing new, of course; successive Home Secretaries made it clear the likes of Brady, Hindley and Sutcliffe would never see life outside of gaol again, ensuring parole wouldn’t be a possibility for any of them. While few would dispute the logic of that, beyond a straightforward life sentence there were no provisions for those earmarked as a risk to the public without having committed a crime to justify this opinion. IPP was supposed to be the answer.

However, as early as 2007, the Queen’s Bench division of the High Court concluded that prisoners serving indeterminate sentences under IPP were victims of an unlawful system, particularly where prisons lacked the adequate facilities to accurately assess an IPP prisoner’s suitability for release; the temptation to simply keep the prisoner incarcerated was both adding to prison overcrowding and denying freedom to those who had served far more time than their minimum sentence specified. The findings of a 2010 report into IPP declared it to be unsustainable and it was discontinued in 2012, just seven years after it began to be implemented.

‘The IPP continues to cast a long shadow over our justice system,’ said Mark Day, the head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust, in response to the news of James Ward’s case. ‘Despite recent welcome efforts by the Parole Board and prison service to speed up the release of the remaining IPP prison population, without legislative action there will still be thousands of people caught in indefinite detention by 2020. The onus is now on the Government to put into action the sensible recommendations made by the Parole Board and other senior policymakers and finally put an end to this unfair and unjust sentence.’

Ward brought attention to this shady corner of the criminal justice system himself when he contacted Radio 4’s Today programme last year. ‘Prison is not fit to accommodate people like me with mental health problems,’ he wrote. ‘It’s made me worse. How can I change in a place like this? I wake up every morning scared of what the day may hold.’ Ward’s sister has campaigned for his release for years. ‘James is not a risk to the public,’ she says. ‘He’s only ever been a risk to himself, and with the right support we can get him there. I hope the IPP prisoners who are way over their tariff can now also be released. I don’t like to think about what would have happened if they’d decided against letting James out. He had given up.’

At the same time, 3,300 men and women remain in gaol on IPP sentences; as was the case with the Joint Enterprise law until a series of campaigns highlighted its injustices, Imprisonment for Public Protection is one of those aspects of law and order in this country that most are largely ignorant of. We tend to assume the punishment fits the crime, yet who really knows how fairly IPP was applied during the years when it was an option? Do we have enough faith in those making such life-changing decisions to do the right thing, or have the numerous exposés of corruption and ineptitude to have seeped out in recent years bred suspicion that those in a position to make these decisions simply cannot be trusted?

Public bodies that exert immense power over people’s lives – whether the police, social services or the prison system – essentially have carte-blanche to use the tools at their disposal, often free from independent scrutiny; and in the case of James Ward, it would certainly seem some form of mental health care would have been a far more fitting solution to his evident problems. But his story is just one of thousands waiting to be told.

© The Editor