20 November 2018

This media release was prepared and originally posted by Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors

A prisoner took his own life as he had ‘lost hope’ because he was on an indeterminate sentence, an inquest heard.

Tommy Nicol, 37, was given a minimum tariff off four years for robbery but had served six years with no immediate hope of being released.

Indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPPs) were abolished by the Government in 2012 for new prisoners, but those already serving IPPs have to prove they are no longer a risk to the public before being eligible for release.

Despite the Parole Board recommending that Tommy complete a course of therapy he was unable to secure a place, like many other IPP prisoners. In another blow Tommy was moved to The Mount Prison where the recommended placement was not available. Three days later he self-harmed and set fire to his cell.

The inquest was told that Tommy, who was from Harrow, London, was moved to segregation in the early hours of Friday 18th September 2015 and became psychotic, stamping on his fingers and threatening to gouge his eyes out. Three days later on Monday 21st September he was found in his cell in the segregation unit with a ligature around his neck. He died on 25th September at Watford General Hospital.

Despite Tommy’s bizarre and acutely disturbed behavior, no mental health assessment was carried out in contravention of prison guidelines and Tommy received no mental health input in the four days he spent in segregation, despite additionally spending over 24 hours in an unfurnished cell which was akin to solitary confinement.

Evidence was given at the inquest that at the time of Tommy’s death there was in any event no mental healthcare available in the prison over the weekend.

The inquest, at Hatfield Coroner’s Court before Senior Coroner Geoffrey Sullivan, heard evidence from consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Dinesh Maganty, who part of Harris Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody.

He described Tommy’s risk level on the day of his death as the highest it could be and referred to a “perfect storm of risk factors” including his IPP sentence. He said that in the absence of any mental health care or support Tommy should, as a basic minimum, have been placed on constant observations which could have saved his life.

Dr Maganty said that the IPP sentence had contributed to Tommy’s death “more than anything else” as it made him “lose hope”. Self-harm rates among IPP prisoners are around 70% higher than among the general prison population.

Tommy made a complaint to the prison in January 2015, in which he described his inability to progress in his IPP sentence towards release as “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years”.

The jury today returned a short form verdict of suicide. The family are very disappointed that no critical findings were made concerning Tommy’s care in spite of the wealth of evidence to the contrary.

Tommy’s sister Donna said: “My brother was jailed for a minimum term of four years yet two years after he had completed his tariff he was still in jail. Tommy made sure he was well behaved in jail and desperately wanted to complete the courses that would have enabled his release, but he was unable to secure a place on them.

“Tommy became more and more desperate but nobody would listen to him. The prison authorities didn’t even carry out a mental health assessment despite his very high risk of self-harm and suicide. Tommy’s desperation led to him self-harming and losing his life, and has left us mourning the loss of a much loved son, brother and uncle.”

Claire Brigham from Hodge Jones & Allen, who represents Tommy’s family, said: “Tommy was shamefully let down by the failure to provide him with even the most basic mental health input over a four day period, or to take the essential step of placing him on constant observations. The injustice of the IPP sentence and the toll it took on Tommy’s mental health was not recognised by the prison.

“Tommy was a victim of the continued use of IPP sentences which still affect thousands of inmates across the UK. The Government realised that this form of sentencing was unfair six years ago, yet did not retrospectively change the sentences for those already on IPPs. The impact of the IPP sentence on mental health and suicide and self-harm rates is now being more widely recognised, and urgent action must be taken to prevent more prisoners in this desperate position from taking their own lives.”

Despite being abolished in December 2012 for new prisoners, on 20 July 2018 the Parole Board reported that around 2,800 people remain in prison on an IPP sentence. Throughout the use of the sentence, serious concerns were raised over difficulties in accessing ‘offender behaviour’ courses, required to qualify for release.

The family were also advised by the charity, INQUEST.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “Indeterminate sentences were abolished in 2012. The detrimental harms of these sentences are well known, yet 2,800 people remain in prison not knowing when they will be released.

The inquest heard evidence of an abhorrent lack of care concerning Tommy’s deteriorating mental health. He was left alone and distressed in an unfurnished cell, already two years over his sentence. A forensic psychiatrist said he was almost certain that the IPP sentence more than minimally contributed to his death.

“It is bitterly disappointing that this evidence was not reflected in the jury’s conclusion. The lack of a formal record of failings in suicide conclusions frustrates avenues for implementing changes to prevent future deaths.”

For further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact Lucy McKay on 020 7263 1111 or here.

INQUEST has been working with the family of Tommy Nicol since his death. The family is represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group members Claire Brigham of Hodge Jones and Allen solicitors, and Kirsten Sjovoll of Matrix Chambers.

Also see the media release on the opening of the inquest

Other deaths of people on IPP sentences include:

  • Steven Trudghill, 23, who died at HMP Highpoint on 9 January 2014. The coroner at the conclusion of the inquest wrote a Prevention of Future Deaths report addressed to the Ministry of Justice, which raised concerns about other prisoners on IPP sentences who were 

    at continued risk. He said, it is the “case that there are complex mental health needs which might actually be the reason for the continuing risk that keeps them in custody, as with Steven, yet the specific treatments are not available within the prison system”. 

  • Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Nokes, who was 38 when she died at HMP Peterborough on 23, 2016. The inquest into her death is yet to take place. Charlotte’s family spoke to the BBC about her life.

IPP sentences

  • IPP sentences came into use on 4 April 2005, as part of section 225 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, introduced by then Home Secretary, David Blunkett.
  • In 2007 the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court ruled that the continued incarceration of prisoners serving IPPs after tariff expiry where the prisons lack the facilities and courses required to assess their suitability for release was unlawful.
  • In 2010 a joint report by the chief inspectors of prisons and probation concluded that IPP sentences were unsustainable for prisons in the UK.
  • On 3 December 2012 the IPP sentence for new cases was abolished by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
  • In November 2016 HM Inspectorate of Prisons completed a review of the ongoing challenges of managing and progressing the large number of prisoners still serving IPP sentences. They found IPP prisoners fell into three broad categories:
  • those who had not reduced their risk and remained dangerous,
  • those who could reduce their risk if the support provided by the system was delivered more efficiently,
  • those who might be deemed ready for release if delays and inefficiencies in the offender management and parole processes were resolved.
  • On 20 July 2018, the Parole Board reported that around 2,800 people remain in prison on an IPP sentence. People on IPP sentences also have particularly high rates of being recalled to prison, according to reports.
  • The Parole Board noted in October 2017 that more than half of those released had being sent back to jail for breaching licence conditions. There were suggestions in the 2016 HMIP review (above) that this could be linked to a lack of access for people on IPP sentences to temporary release (ROTL) to prepare for leaving prison.
  • For more information see Parliamentary Briefing Paper [PDF] on Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection, October 2017.