When Roy Whiting snatched – and then murdered – eight-year-old Sarah Payne, feelings were running high in the entire country; empathy for the ‘living nightmare every parent dreads’ was enormous. Sarah’s mother, Sara, was an effective media communicator; initially in appeals for her daughter’s return, later, in appealing for effective changes in the law to protect all children, culminating in ‘Sarah’s Law’ to inform parents when paedophiles moved into their district.
One of those who responded to the intense and emotive media interest in the fate of young Sarah Payne was David Blunkett, then Home Secretary. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act contained the infamous s.225 – intended to provide a measure of control that could extend beyond the sentencing of the court. It was designed to deal with those situations where a ‘life sentence’ didn’t mean an entire life spent in jail, but could result in the release of a person still known to represent a considerable danger to the public. The intention was that the Parole Board would monitor the prisoner, attempt to rehabilitate them, and if they were resistant to rehabilitation, continue to contain them – ‘for the protection of the public’.
All very laudable, and the people who supported s.225 had in mind monsters of the calibre of Roy Whiting.
‘Murphy’s Law’ soon came into play, as the judiciary, always hypersensitive to the idea of public criticism, started to use s.225 as a way of protecting themselves from criticism of overly lenient sentencing.
‘Yes, I know I only gave him a two year sentence, that was all I could give him for that offence, but in reality it is up to the parole board to decide when to release him.’
It was a great ‘failsafe’ way of placating the public. In no time at all, there were over 6,000 prisoners serving an ‘indeterminate prison sentence’. More than half had already served the sentence for which they had been convicted – but were still trying to find a way of showing the parole board that they had been rehabilitated.
When you are moved from prison to prison because of the notorious overcrowding, often to a prison with NO rehabilitation courses, or courses which were already fully subscribed, that is a near impossibility. Prisoners were incarcerated, no longer for the crime which they had committed, but because they literally couldn’t comply with the only means by which they were free to leave.
By 2012 the scheme was so discredited that that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was ‘arbitrary and unlawful’.
The Strasbourg judges said the prison system was “swamped” by prisoners without fixed release dates after the indeterminate sentences were introduced in 2005. They said the three inmates who brought the case had “no realistic chance” of accessing the rehabilitation courses they need to qualify for release.
The law was changed, and since 2012, there have been no new IPP sentences.
Needless to say, the media filled the space between the double glazing ads and the appeals for funds for donkey sanctuaries with a series of emotive articles conjuring up the spectre of Roy Whiting type monsters being allowed to roam the streets, scooping up small girls and carrying them off for unimaginable terrors. The idea that European judges were forcing the innocent public to live next door to a selection of headline murderers and rapists was welcome fodder…
Most people are probably under the impression that this was the end of the matter, unaware that there were still many thousands of prisoners already in the system for whom the change in the law didn’t apply. Even three years after the law was changed, there were still 4,133 who had served their sentence, but were still awaiting transfer to a jail where they could access the courses required to prove to the parole board that they were safe to release. They have no idea when they might happen. Year after year, they have no idea when that might happen.
But these are hardened criminals, right? The sort of men who would hack you to death with a machete? Recidivist paedophiles who would snatch a child as soon as they were allowed out of the door? Psychopathic murderers?
No, that is the media perception of a profile of a far from homogeneous group. The only factor they have in common is that once upon a time, a judge erred on the side of caution and made sure he wouldn’t end up on the front page of the Daily Star.
Young Danny was just 18. A few months earlier and he would have been termed ‘a child’. Entitled to our tears if so much as a hair on his head was disturbed.
He was no angel, a hoody, a young tearaway. He was in court as a result of two unsuccessful, nay bungled, robberies. The judge decided that he should serve at least 16 months before he was released. Time to settle down, lose contact with his unwise friends, maybe read a book or two in prison? Just to be on the safe side, the judge tacked on an IPP sentence.
That was 10 years ago. Danny is still waiting to ‘be rehabilitated’. He has been to HMP Northumberland, HMP Moorlands in Doncaster, HMP Armley in Leeds, HMP Frankland in Durham and is now in HMP Hull. He has met an interesting collection of the sort of monsters that you might imagine the law was designed to contain. He has become a 28-year-old man with no idea when he might see the outside world again. Scarcely unsurprisingly, he has become very depressed, seriously clinically depressed. Even the prison recognise that – they might not have a course available for him, but they have put him in the hospital wing.
He isn’t a danger to the general public – he is a danger to himself. So far he has attempted to cut his throat with a razor at least seven times. One of these days, the probability is that he will find a method of taking his life that will be successful – then he will become just another of the 60+ individuals who have taken their own life in prison this year alone…
Keeping him incarcerated will only exacerbate his depression and in the meantime he becomes more institutionalised, treading water so to speak and trying to be normal in an abnormal environment with no light at the end of the tunnel. He’s a bungling robber with mental health issues, not a monster.
The three prisoners who brought the case before the European court had been held up to two years and 10 months longer than the original minimum recommendation of their trial judge.
Danny has been held for eight years longer than the original minimum recommendation of his trial judge.
It is wrong to imprison someone not for what they have done but what they might do.
It is doubly wrong to imprison them not for what they might have done, but for what they might do to themselves – particularly when the reason for their distress is so blindingly obvious.
Well, Liz Truss, Lord Chancelloress? What are you going to do about Danny Weatherson?
Liz Truss’ e-mail, should you be minded to jog her memory: