The family of a prisoner who killed himself after being handed a controversial “never-ending” sentence has received damages from the government in an out-of-court settlement, the Guardian has learned.
Tommy Nicol was jailed under the terms of the now-abolished imprisonment for public protection (IPP), under which offenders were handed a minimum term but no maximum term and had been dubbed by critics the “never-ending sentence”.
Nicol, 37, died in hospital in 2015 after trying to take his own life at the Mount prison in Hertfordshire. He was two years past his four-year minimum tariff for stealing a car and breaking the arm of the owner.
His family had begun a landmark claim in the high court, alleging the operation and administration of the IPP sentence constituted a breach of Nicol’s right to life under the Human Rights Act 1998, and led to his death.
In what appears to amount to a concession, the Ministry of Justice has settled a claim with the family.
Despite the use of the sentencing power being scrapped in 2012, more than 3,200 prisoners remain locked up under the regime, including those who have been recalled to prison.
Nicol’s sister Donna Mooney, who lives in south-west London, has since become a campaigner in support of re-sentencing or releasing remaining IPP inmates.
She said: “Tommy’s death wounded our family deeply and we cannot heal that wound. The only thing that has kept me going since then is the fight to try and ensure no other families have to endure the pain we are still feeling. This cruelty has no place in a society which claims to be civilised.”
Nicol described the IPP as the “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years”. The damning assessment was among a number of handwritten complaints filed while Nicol was serving his sentence for robbery.
His time in prison was characterised by repeated setbacks with access to mental health care and rehabilitative courses that were crucial for him to progress his sentence and secure his release. On 15 September 2015, he was found unresponsive in his cell. Four days later, at Watford general hospital, he died in restraints, having never regained consciousness.
In evidence seen by the Guardian, which would have been put to the high court, the consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Dinesh Maganty said Nicol and many other IPP prisoners were caught in a vicious cycle where, in order to be released, they had to complete programmes that were not available in sufficient numbers.
Maganty said: “A human being has to suffer extreme suffering to be pushed to take one’s life. In Nicol’s case, the death was caused by such suffering and the deterioration in his mental health, together with hopelessness, led to his suicide.”
Introduced under Labour in 2005, IPPs were designed to detain indefinitely serious offenders who were perceived to be a risk to the public. The government expected about 900 people to be jailed under an IPP; it peaked at more than 8,000. They were used far more widely than intended and issued to offenders who committed low-level crimes.
They were scrapped by the Conservative justice secretary, Ken Clarke, in 2012, but the move was not retrospective.
There were 1,895 IPP prisoners by the end of September 2020. IPP sentences are attached with an indefinite licence period, meaning released offenders face recall to prison for the rest of their lives. The number of IPP prisoners recalled to custody continues to increase; in the past year the recalled IPP population has grown by 13% to 1,357.
There have been several deaths of IPP prisoners in recent years, many of which were recorded as suicide.
Charlotte Nokes, 38, David Dunnings, 35, Shane Stroughton, 29, Kelvin Speakman, 30, and Steven Trudghill, 23, all died over-tariff while serving IPP sentences.
Jocelyn Cockburn and Aston Luff, from the human rights solicitors Hodge Jones and Allen, represented Nicol’s family. Luff said: “We don’t want anyone else to feel, like Tommy did, that they have no hope. By winning this claim and telling Tommy’s story, this is another step forward in getting IPPs abolished for good.”
A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our sympathies remain with the family and friends of Mr Nicol. We have provided specialist suicide and self-harm training for over 25,000 staff and have recruited 4,000 new prison officers since 2016, allowing us to provide dedicated support to each prisoner.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.