‘I Tried to End My Life’: Covid-19 Exposes the Injustice of ‘never-ending’ Prison Sentences

by Naomi Larsson and Alexandra Genova

15 April 2020

Adobe Stock

When John Cavanagh heard about the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 reaching UK prisons he told his mum he wished he would get the virus because he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’. 

With prisons across the country facing severe lockdown measures, the government has announced the temporary release of up to 4,000 “low-risk” prisoners.

Cavanagh is one of more than 3,000 people serving time in prisons across England and Wales without a release date, he is detained under a controversial and now abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence, a form of indeterminate sentence which makes such prisoners ineligible for early release. 

“Some of us are really struggling. A lot of us have lost hope,” he says, talking on the phone from his cell in a Suffolk prison. 

Speaking to Novara Media, the Ministry of Justice made clear they are not releasing anyone who has to have their release granted by the parole board — which is the case for IPPs. 

Responding to this decision, the families of IPP prisoners believe that the measures implemented by the Ministry of Justice, and other institutions, to fight coronavirus have laid bare the injustices of indeterminate sentences. 

‘The situation is compounding delays.’


The IPP sentence, in which offenders are given a minimum jail tariff, but no maximum, for a range of crimes, was scrapped in 2012 after being deemed in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

But this abolishment was not applied retrospectively and  IPP prisoners continue to serve out these “draconian” sentences, despite calls by groups such as the Prison Reform Trust to enact legislation that would “end the injustice it represents for those serving it”. More than 93% are still in prison having passed their tariff date. 

IPP prisoners are also subject to a life licence, meaning they can be recalled to prison at any time if they breach the terms of their license — which could range from committing a crime to missing curfew.  

Such is the case for Cavanagh, who was handed a five-year minimum tariff for armed robbery when he was in his twenties. In total, he’s serving nine years over tariff, after being recalled to prison without a criminal charge four years ago. He says one of the reasons for recall was because his parole officer was not aware of a trip he made to London, which breached his parole terms. 

Most IPP prisoners are required to complete a number of Offender Behaviour Programmes in order to be considered eligible for release. However, these programmes often have long waiting lists or are unavailable in certain prisons, making it impossible in some cases for prisoners to prove to the parole board that they are no longer a risk.

And with all face-to-face courses now on hold for the foreseeable future, as prisons try to reduce the risk of infection, the situation is compounding delays that IPP prisoners have already been facing for years. 

“The way in which risk-based decisions for IPP release are made can miss the underlying reasons — such as continued incarceration — of why someone might not be improving,” says Dr Harry Annison, an associate professor in Criminal Law and co-author of a report into the resettlement of people serving IPPs.

“The Parole Board and other relevant organisations need to make sure that this current crisis that is out of prisoners’ hands isn’t effectively held against them in due course.”

A spokesman for the Parole Board says: “[We are] continuing to progress cases wherever possible through remote hearings and our new intensive paper review process. Despite the coronavirus pandemic our principles of protection of the public, fairness and the test for release remain.”

‘I tried to end my life.’

Prisoners serving indeterminate sentences suffer significantly higher rates of mental health problems than other prisoners and self-harm rates among IPPs are around 70% higher than among the general prison population, according to the Centre for Mental Health. 

And under the new coronavirus restrictions, the vulnerability of those serving these sentences will be put at further risk.

“The delays to parole hearings will be very difficult to cope with for many IPPs. Being in prison in itself removes control, and the little control they did have is now no longer there,” says Dr Ruth Tully, a forensic psychologist who has worked in prisons and now works independently, regularly visiting prisons to assess people in relation to parole and criminal proceedings. 

Tully also stresses the impact the prolonged lock-up and being cut-off from family will have on IPP inmates’ mental health. “Staff should take context into account [when assessing IPPs],” she explains, “They should consider that a decline in mental health because of extreme situations is different to a decline in behaviour that is risk related.”

This context might cause irreversible damage to those who are already struggling. As a result of the suspension of parole hearings, Cavanagh’s legal visit was delayed, which exacerbated his own mental health issues.

“I tried to end my life on this recall.” he says, “You’re in limbo, you don’t know what’s going on. The people who have a release day have hope – we don’t even know when the parole boards are coming”. 

Adam Watson, a prison rights activist, filmmaker and IPP,  was recalled to prison for a second time in January 2020 for breaching his parole terms, which included a formal complaint he made about a forensic psychologist working on his case. 

He is now fighting to stay positive under the new Covid-19 restrictions. “Words cannot express my deep sadness and great pain at being recalled to custody again, without committing a crime, facing the prospect of a lifetime in prison,” he wrote in a recent letter. 

Watson received an IPP sentence in 2006, and served more than three years past his one year 10 month minimum tariff.

After his first recall, he self-harmed and attempted suicide and was diagnosed with severe PTSD exacerbated by the indeterminate nature of his sentence and the trauma of witnessing “the horrific self-harming and human suffering among short-tariff IPPs in Winchester prison.” 

After his initial release in 2018, Watson had been campaigning for the rights of IPPs and is studying for a degree in criminal psychology. 

Now back in prison he described over the phone how he is being kept in his cell for more than 23.5 hours a day in de-facto solitary confinement, which is causing him to “suffer greatly”, placing an even greater toll on his already poor mental health. 

‘The whole thing is unjust’.

5 April marked 15 years since IPP sentences were introduced in England and Wales. The Home Office initially estimated 900 serious offenders would go to prison, but more than 8,000 IPP sentences were handed out, including for low-level crimes, placing a huge strain on probation, parole board and prison resources. 

A report from the Prison Reform Trust and Southampton University last year called for legislation to be introduced to “end the injustice” of IPPs who are over tariff. 

39 year old David, who asked to use just his first name, was handed a 20-month minimum tariff in 2006 for an arson offence and remains incarcerated to this day, currently residing in a Lancashire prison. 

“Of course arson is a very serious crime, and the judge at the time said he would normally sentence him to five years,” his father Peter told Novara Media. Despite this, David has been inside for more than 14 years. 

“He’s a lifer. Once they’re out of prison they’ve only got to fall foul from a bureaucratic issue and they’re back inside again. The whole thing is unjust,” Peter says. 

With coronavirus restrictions, David is currently getting about 45 minutes outside of his cell to make a phone call and have a shower, with only about 10 minutes of fresh air. All preparations for his August parole review have been put on hold.

“You’ve got no end in sight anyway,” his father says, “But this is going to extend the sentence even beyond what it is already.”

Alexandra Genova is a British/American journalist and producer. She has a particular interest in social justice, arts and culture and indigenous peoples. 

Naomi Larsson is a British-Chilean journalist who covers human rights and social justice. She was listed on Forbes 30 under 30 in 2020. 

You can support their journalism here. 

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.