The number of accredited rehabilitation programmes started and completed by prisoners in England and Wales has significantly decreased, the Guardian can reveal, making the route to release more difficult for thousands of inmates.
Between 2009 and 2019, the number of rehabilitative courses to tackle general offending that were started and completed fell 62%, despite the prison population increasing significantly in this time, data released under freedom of information laws reveals.
The figures were uncovered by Donna Mooney, whose brother Tommy Nicol killed himself after being repeatedly refused access to courses he needed to gain his release while serving an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence.
She says the sharp decline in courses started and completed is clear evidence that the number of spaces available has been cut by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)
The IPP sentence, under which offenders were handed a minimum term but no maximum term, was scrapped in 2012 but more than 3,000 prisoners remain locked up today under the regime, which a former supreme court justice recently described as “the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system”.
Completion of rehabilitative courses is often a requirement by the Parole Board for release for IPP prisoners.
Figures released by the MoJ show the number of starts and completions for courses designed to tackle general offending, such as “cognitive skills booster, enhanced thinking skills and thinking skills programme,” fell between 2009 and 2019.
However, there have been increases in the numbers starting and completing courses designed to tackle domestic violence and violence.
Mooney told the Guardian: “My brother died over five years ago and one of the main factors at play in his death was the fact he was denied access to the rehabilitation that was required in order for him to be released. Have any lessons been learned from my brothers death? My opinion is no.
“How can you tell people that their release is dependent on them showing lowered risk through completion of accredited courses but then have these programme cut by more than half? People serving an IPP sentence have always struggled to access these courses, through no fault of their own, and this is made even harder year on year, pushing them ever further past their tariff release date.”
Nicol killed himself six years into his sentence after being jailed on a minimum four-year tariff. Of the 3,100 inmates serving under the terms of an IPP, 486 are 10 years or more over their minimum tariff, including a man who has served 15 years after receiving a tariff of four and a half months.
Last year Mooney, with Shirley Debono and a small team, launched a charity, United Group for Reform of IPPs (Ungripp), which calls for the sentences to be abolished retrospectively and those sentenced under the law resentenced according to the principle of proportional punishment.
IPP sentences came attached with an indefinite licence period, meaning released offenders face recall to prison for the rest of their lives. While the number of unreleased prisoners is falling and stands at about 1,849, the number of recalled prisoners continues to rise and is about 1,338.
John Podmore, a former governor of Brixton and Swaleside prisons, now a criminal justice consultant, said IPP inmates were lost in a “Kafkaesque chaos” in which they are perceived as a risk because their mental and physical health is deteriorating due to their continued incarceration.
He said: “It is time to switch the burden of proof away from prisoners unable to obtain help and interventions in custody, exacerbated by almost a year of uninterrupted solitary confinement. All those subject to the sentences should be released at the end of their tariff unless the Prison and Probation Service can prove they still pose a risk.”
In January the Home Office and MoJ minister Chris Philp was reported to have told MPs it was an “historical anomaly” that more than 3,000 people remained in custody on indefinite sentences, but there were no immediate proposals to make changes.
Officials said the main reasons for the apparent reduction in the number of accredited programmes in custody since 2010 was that responsibility for running substance misuse accredited programmes had transferred from the Prison Service to the NHS, and investment in programmes has remained broadly stable.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “Investment in accredited programmes hasn’t changed over the last decade and IPP prisoners are prioritised, but the independent Parole Board decides when IPP prisoners are released and completion of a course is only a part of that decision. The number of IPP prisoners has fallen by two-thirds since 2012 and we continue to support those struggling to progress.”