Mia Harris, Kimmett Edgar, Russell Webster

16/12/2020 09:00:00

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced the IPP, intended to keep dangerous people convicted of violent and sexual offences in custody for as long as necessary for public protection. During their minimum tariff in prison (reflecting the punishment proportionate to their offence) people undertake work to reduce the risk they pose. Post-tariff, the Parole Board directs release when they consider a person’s risk manageable in the community. People are released on a licence, which they can apply to terminate 10 years after initial release. On licence, probation can initiate recall for breaching licence conditions, concerning behaviour, or reoffending. People are imprisoned until the Parole Board considers them safe to re-release.

IPPs were often given for low-level offences, and the criminal justice system was ill-equipped to cope with the large numbers sentenced, meaning people remained in prison long post-tariff (Beard, 2019). The IPP eligibility criteria were tightened in 2008, and the sentence abolished in 2012, but not retrospectively, meaning people remain subject to it. 8,711 IPP sentences were made. In June 2020 1,969 IPP prisoners had never been released.

People given IPPs were disproportionately likely to have pre-existing mental health problems (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2008) and research documents the negative mental health implications of IPP imprisonment. The indeterminacy of imprisonment can leave people feeling hopeless and helpless (Addicott, 2012) yet afraid seeking support might prolong their imprisonment (Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths on Custody, 2019). Mental ill-health can in turn limit progress towards release (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2008). Serving an abolished sentence can make people feel ‘disenfranchised, frustrated and distressed’ (Smart, 2019: 37). Research indicates IPP prisoners’ fears about life post-release; of recall for minor incidents or false allegations and being unable to avoid trouble given life circumstances (Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, 2008; Addicott, 2012). However, there is negligible research on experiences of IPP post-release. This article addresses that gap, focusing on the IPP’s mental health implications for people on licence and post-recall.

The limited literature on prisoners’ recall experiences provides some insights into its mental health consequences. One-quarter of Digard’s (2010) participants (people with sexual convictions recalled on extended sentences) displayed depressive symptoms, and almost half felt more emotionally stable in prison due to anxiety about recall on licence. Fitzalan Howard (2019) documents emotional difficulties following recall and a preference for imprisonment amongst some determinately sentenced men subject to standard recall. Padfield’s (2013) research with recalled prisoners serving life, extended and determinate sentences also documents the weight of licence conditions. Unfortunately, sentence types are not attributed to prisoners’ quotations, and there is no comparison between groups.

This article extends the existing literature on IPP mental health through its novel focus on post-release experiences. It adds to the recall literature through focusing exclusively on wellbeing, and its original consideration of IPP prisoners.



This article is based on semi-structured interviews with recalled IPP prisoners, conducted for a project exploring the high rate of IPP recall for which we also interviewed practitioners and analysed official data. We privilege prisoners’ perspectives here to amplify the voices of a traditionally little-heard and invalidated group.

In 2019 we interviewed 28 men and 3 women across seven establishments. Staff circulated an invitation to all recalled IPP prisoners. We explained participation was voluntary, and the limits of confidentiality. Interviews were conducted one-to-one in private, except in one establishment which insisted staff were present.

Participants were aged 26 to 60. Two-thirds were White British. They had received IPPs for various offences, most commonly wounding or robbery. Their mean tariff was three years. They spent between one and ten years in prison post-tariff before their first release, and on average four years 10 months. They had been recalled between one and four times; almost two-thirds had been recalled only once. The most common reasons were further charges, failure to reside at an approved location, and non-compliance. On average they had spent 21 months in the community before their current recall, and 7 months in custody when interviewed.

Interviews covered: release preparation; licence supervision; recall decisions; the impact of recall; and the re-release process. Although we did not ask specifically about mental health, 20 out of 31 participants mentioned problems, most commonly anxiety and depression. Several had attempted or contemplated suicide. Many said emotional distress was a direct consequence of the IPP. For others, mental health problems were pre-existing, or prompted by personal circumstances. The IPP appeared invariably to exacerbate mental ill-health.



We discuss three themes identified during interview analysis: severe anxiety about recall and/or spending additional years behind bars (‘walking on eggshells’); a resulting self-imposed social isolation; and hopelessness—feeling trapped in a cycle of imprisonment.


“Walking on eggshells”

On licence, the prospect of indefinite recall often provoked acute anxiety:

"[Recall] was on my mind 24/7. I even had nightmares [about] spending another decade in prison … I sometimes think, ‘do probation know what they’re doing to other people?’ I’ve got severe depression, severe anxiety and paranoia."

32, male, 3, 10 [1]

[1] We provide demographic information in the format of age, gender, initial tariff length in years, time served in prison post-tariff in years.

People were anxious due to recall’s profound consequences and their perceptions of how easily it could be enacted. Malicious accusations were a common concern:

"Terrified. Anyone who dislikes me for anything can ring the police."

31, female 2, 3

"Being IPP you always worry about getting recalled, because the slightest thing someone says, you’re recalled. They only listen to one side."

59, male 1.5, 7.5

Perceived distrust from probation made the prospect of false allegations particularly frightening, and left people vulnerable to coercion:  

"[My partner] used the IPP as a weapon against me."

53, male, 2, 4

Beyond malicious allegations, participants worried about recall for other circumstances beyond their control. One woman was recalled after being arrested, but not charged, for assaulting someone she had in fact assisted:

"I’d never help anyone again…I should have thought about being an IPP and how it’d look."

43, female, 1.5, 8

Another worried her friends’ actions could elicit recall:

"The IPP’s a lot more stressful outside. You’re terrified to do anything normal, to go out with your friends. I can’t control what other people do; so it’s really scary."

31, female, 2, 3


Like several others, she considered life harder on licence than in prison due to the relentless pressure of monitoring her own and others’ behaviour:

"I may as well just stay in prison, as it’s less stress than a life of fear out there…I was a prisoner in the community, living in utter and total fear…The amount of times I wet myself due to the sounds of an ambulance or police siren."

53, male, 2, 4

11 of 31 participants agreed that, in some ways, they preferred being in prison due to: its familiarity; structure and stability; knowing where they stood and understanding the rules; having an identity, job and friends; feeling safe and not having to worry about recall. Some reported being institutionalised.

One man purposefully got recalled. After struggles with drug use, homelessness, benefits, and living far from support networks, he absconded from his Approved Premises to seek support in prison. Another planned risking indefinite recall to be free from the anxiety of following licence conditions:

"I’m being imprisoned on the outside. I’m not gonna go out and hurt no-one, but other than that I’m gonna live my life…I don’t see the point of beating myself up and having to skip through hoops forever…[Others serving IPPs are] thinking about the sentence so much it fucks their head up."

33, male, 2, 3.5

Fitzalan Howard (2019: 191) documented a man actively defying licence conditions, preferring prison to ‘semi-freedom’. However, he knew that, having served his whole determinate sentence in prison, he would be free from probation supervision. With IPP, there is no such end in sight, making our finding of preference for imprisonment particularly significant. 

Although some find prison less stressful than being on licence, prison is not conducive to wellbeing. Prisoners often lack access to timely mental health treatment (House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, 2018), waits are long for transfers to secure hospitals (National Audit Office, 2017) and self-harm is at record levels (Ministry of Justice, 2020). 

As in the community, recalled IPP prisoners were hypervigilant, worried about negative inferences about their risk:

"It’s not easy when you’re in limbo. No one’s squeaky clean, but that’s what they expect us to be. You’re not allowed to argue or express your opinion. What are we, robots?"

46, male, 7, 1

"We have to be on our best behaviour…All these years of biting your tongue, suppressing your emotions, they turn you into a bad kid."

29, male, 5, 2

Participants were hyper-conscious of being constantly monitored, and that prison itself, and their frustration with the IPP, fostered the negative behaviour they must avoid:

"Because of the anger I have I get frustrated with the system, with the officers, with the prisoners. And the officers, they just see you as a problem…They say my behaviour in prison hasn’t been adequate. You’ve put me in the most violent, volatile situation…If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’re going to be a victim."

40, male, 3, 7

As within the community, people worried not only about the ramifications of their behaviour, but false allegations:

"You’re treading on eggshells all the time. You’re petrified all the time of lies."

43, female, 1.5, 8

Awareness of vulnerability to recall, and the difficulty of securing re-release, invoked stress and anxiety. While the existing recall literature notes hypervigilance on licence, we found this applies post-recall too. Fear and frustration about the indeterminacy of post-recall imprisonment, coupled with the difficult prison environment, sometimes induced problematic behaviour, or considering self-isolation to avoid it.


Social isolation

In prison and the community, anxiety led some participants to self-isolate. People worried about becoming involved in fights or criminal activity:

"Lads get started on…If you’ve hit the lad back once it’s a ‘fight’, you’ve put your risk back up. He’s gonna get a week’s loss of privileges. You’re gonna get two to three years on your parole. You’re scared of coming out of your cell some days, for fear of spending years in prison."

29, male, 5, 2

"I lost stuff in the laundry [of the Approved Premises]. I had my phone stolen. And they were always begging off me…‘Give us a smoke.’ ‘Let me use your phone to score.’…I started self-isolating. To befriend any of them would’ve been a risk factor."

             38, male, 3, 10

Others worried more broadly about interpersonal relations, seeing self-isolation as the only certain way of avoiding recall:

"I stopped talking to me family, I stopped going anywhere for fear of getting recalled."

43, male, 6, 2

"The only way to avoid a recall is by having as little contact with other people as possible…I never once went on a bus. If I had to go to the shops, it was eyes down and in and out and back home. At work I was in fear to make new friends…Any disagreement or upset will put me back into prison."

53, male, 2, 4

Such accounts are worrying since social isolation and loneliness are well-established risk factors for mental ill-health (Leigh-Hunt et al., 2017) and positive social relationships promote desistance from crime (Maruna, 2010).

Beyond avoiding peers, friends and family, some restricted contact with probation for fear of recall:

"I didn’t want help from the system; they terrorised me. I went to probation, but I kept my distance. The less talking to them the better, because they can recall me."

38, male, 5, 6

"[I plan to] not be as open and honest with probation as I was, cos I wouldn’t have been recalled."

31, male, 3.5, 3.5

This expands on previous findings that people recalled on other sentences sometimes disengage from probation to protect themselves against adverse consequences (Digard, 2010 and Fitzalan Howard, 2019). Avoiding openness with probation might make people feel safer in the short-term, but could prevent access to necessary support, increasing long-term prospects of recall. Particularly concerning was the (well-grounded) fear that disclosing mental ill-health could provoke assessments of increased risk and therefore recall:

"I felt myself slipping back a bit, but I was afraid to ask for help."

59, male, 1.5, 7.5

"I got told from all the courses I did that if I’ve got negative emotions, I should let them out, so I rang probation venting…She rung the police."

34, male, 2, 7

"It’s disgusting to recall someone who’s mentally unwell and is asking for help. I wish I’d just suffered in silence…They could have got in touch with mental health services. They just put me back in prison."

31, female, 2, 3

In prison too there can be reluctance to seek mental health support:

"I think I need anti-depressants but if you ask for them, as an IPP, it goes against you."

55, male, 1.5, 5

Treating mental health problems early can reduce their long-term impact (Wilson et al.,2011), making it concerning that people might delay seeking support for fear of recall or prolonged imprisonment.



Recall can leave people feeling ‘back at square one’:

"I did nothing wrong and I still got recalled. Everything that I worked to get before, it’s lost…I have to do it all again."

52, male, 3, 4

"I was just getting my relationship back with my family…getting my head around being outside again, getting into a routine of being a normal person. Then getting snatched back off the streets again…It ain’t good for your mental health."

29, male, 5, 2

Some felt the process of release and recall was ‘never-ending’:

"I’m just here again, just back in the cycle."

34, male, 4, 2

Fitzalan Howard (2019), Digard (2010) and Padfield (2013) documented recalled prisoners’ frustration at losing progress made in the community, and hopelessness about their prospects of successful resettlement. For recalled IPP prisoners, hopelessness appeared particularly profound given the sentence’s indeterminacy:

"You never know when you’re getting out. That’s a lot playing on your mind. If they said ‘20 years’, I’d say, ‘fair enough, now I know’. But when you don’t...you just give up…[Recall] broke me…I understand now what depression means."

47, male, 2, 3

"The longer they’re leaving you in here the more risk they’re putting you at, because you’re losing all hope…If I got a knock-back, I don’t know where that’d lead…I see no light at the end of the tunnel."

43, female, 1.5, 8,

Some participants felt resigned to life in prison:  

"I don’t know whether to just get used to it and accept it."

31, male, 3.5, 3.5

"I don’t have much confidence in the system. I’m giving up."

31, female, 2, 3

Such despondency is understandable. Continued uncertainty can induce psychological stress and anxiety (Greco & Roger, 2003) and is associated with low self-esteem and little sense of control over the future (Peters et al., 2017).

Corroborating previous research (Fitzalan Howard, 2019 and Padfield, 2013) participants often felt powerlessness about re-release. They were frustrated by long waits for parole hearings and courses, and judgments about their needs and risks:

"It’s like looking at clouds, you can see any shape you want. My past behaviour gets examined. You could look at it and see literally anything."

37, male, 5, 3.5

For IPP prisoners there is an added hopelessness about coming off licence:

"[Probation] can keep doing it [recall] for the rest of my life, that’s what I keep thinking."

26, male, 4, 2.5

"It’s my fourth recall. There’s not really an end goal when you’re out there."

34, male, 4, 2

A common theme amongst participants was frustration at effectively serving life sentences for crimes that would otherwise have merited determinate sentences:

"It’s wrong, like they said when they abolished the IPP…I committed an offence aged 18. I’m 31, still sat in prison…I should have an end-date to my sentence. Other people get an end date." 

31, female, 2, 3

"One year one way, and two years the other, I’d have a determinate sentence…What annoys me is the scale of punishment and the fact it’s so transitory…If you scrap it, you’ve got to deal with the people who’re under that."

60, male, 2.5, 6.5

One man shared a phrase describing IPP prisoners’ frustration with the common disparity between their sentence and crime:

"IPP to me is life…Murderers and lifers say we’re ‘moody lifers’, cos we ain’t committed murder [but effectively have life sentences]."

46, male, 7, 1

Hopelessness is a risk factor for suicidal ideation (Wolfe et al., 2017) and the indeterminate licence left some suicidal:

"After 10 years you can apply for the licence to be taken off… If I don’t come off, I might as well stick a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger. Because that’s the only definite way to get off licence."

32, male, 3, 10

"I’m always walking on eggshells, and there’s no chance of me ever being free until I’m dead, whether that’s through normal causes or cos I can’t cope with it…IPP is hell and there’s no end."

53, male, 2, 4


Early research documented the IPP’s negative impact on prisoners’ wellbeing. Our research indicates that indeterminacy continues to cause distress on licence and post-recall, often generating anxiety, social isolation, and hopelessness.

Government must tackle the growing problem of IPP recall, and suffering it brings. Short of retrospective abolition, structural changes (reducing the licence termination application point, ensuring high thresholds for indefinite recall, and entitling recalled prisoners to annual parole reviews) might provide more hope. All people subject to IPPs must have access to confidential mental health support, to openly discuss the sentence’s harmful consequences without further entrapping themselves within it. 

To understand how best to support this group’s successful resettlement, further research on the mental health implications of the IPP is necessary. In particular, research should compare their experiences with people serving determinate, and different indeterminate, sentences.