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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sammy Gecsoyler

UN highlights ‘psychological harm’ to UK man jailed since 2012 for phone theft

Interior of a prison in England
Indefinite (IPP) sentences were introduced in 2005 to detain serious offenders but were also used against those who had committed low-level crimes. Photograph: wyrdlight/Alamy

A UN torture expert has called the case of a man driven to psychosis after being jailed in the UK for more than a decade for stealing a mobile phone “emblematic of the psychological harm” caused by indeterminate sentences.

Thomas White was handed an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence in 2012 for stealing a mobile phone – four months before such prison terms were abolished. He has been in jail ever since after initially receiving a minimum two-year tariff.

His family say his mental condition has deteriorated significantly since his imprisonment and that he now suffers from psychosis. They say he requires urgent mental healthcare.

Clara White, Thomas’s sister, who is being supported by the campaign group JENGba (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association), said that he had had no mental health issues before his sentencing. “He never experienced hallucinations or voices. He was very musically talented. Since his IPP sentence, all of his talent and ambitions have lain dormant,” she said.

She said the family had noticed a downturn in his mental health in 2016. “He was ringing home sounding very unwell, mentally, physically, spiritually. He would talk to us down the phone in Roman numerals. In prison, he was wearing his own bedding and believed he was Jesus Christ.”

She added: “In 2020 we fought to get him out to a different prison because there was no progressive programme in there. He was becoming really unwell, very psychotic.”

Alice Jill Edwards, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, told the Guardian: “The cases of Thomas White and many others are emblematic of the psychological harm caused by the IPP sentences. The resulting distress, depression and anxiety are severe for prisoners and their families.”

In a psychiatric assessment seen by the Guardian, it was recommended that White be moved to a psychiatric hospital. The assessment was contained within a parole dossier prepared in June by the Ministry of Justice.

The assessment also noted that the delusions White was facing “mirror those” identified in a justice select committee report published last September “which emphasises the psychological harm caused by IPP sentences”.

In the report, MPs noted that the “indefinite nature of the [sentences] has contributed to feelings of hopelessness and despair”. White’s psychiatric assessment came to a similar conclusion.

White was eventually moved to another prison, but his condition is still poor. Clara White said he could no longer keep any weight on his body. He is 6ft 4in tall, but weighs 9 stone. “In the middle of his head, he’s lost his hair,” she said. “The effects on me, my family and Thomas has been like an incurable cancer of the soul.”

She added: “The government had a duty of care to make sure my brother got through his sentence sane, sound and alive. He never got through it sane; he’s now insane and we’ve got to get him into hospital to reverse the damage.”

Edwards said: “I reiterate my call on the government for an urgent review of all IPP sentences. More than 10 years after the abolition of the IPP scheme, I am hopeful there are reasonable solutions to these unreasonable penalties.”

IPP sentences were introduced in 2005 to detain indefinitely serious offenders who were perceived to be a risk to the public. However, they were also used against offenders who had committed low-level crimes.

As of 30 June, 2,909 people were in prison serving IPP sentences. More than half of the remaining unreleased IPP prisoners have been held for at least 10 years beyond the end of their tariff.

In 2020, the former supreme court justice Lord Brown called the scheme “the greatest single stain on our criminal justice system”.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Decisions to transfer a prisoner to a mental health hospital are based on strict criteria set out in law and are entirely separate to the parole process. The wellbeing of prisoners is of utmost importance and we are improving services in prison to ensure people have access to timely and effective mental healthcare.”

In 2016, the Prison Reform Trust reported that for every 1,000 prisoners serving an IPP sentence, there were 550 incidents of self-harm.

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