At 16, John Wright was the way a lot of teenagers can be: one person at school, another person at home. At school, he was quiet, kept to himself. Behind closed doors, he was playful and chatty. He’d do backflips or cartwheels on the sofa while watching TV, or make silly noises at awkward moments to make his three siblings laugh. He was creative: he loved rapping, making his own beats, he played the guitar, liked drawing. The family would play basketball together, near the sleepy cul-de-sac where they lived. Those basketball games are the part that John’s mum, Lynn, remembers now – that and driving her kids around, windows down, Motown pumping out of the speakers, and all of them singing along.

At school, John was a bit of a target. It probably didn’t help that he stood out – he was tall for his age, skinny. In the years his school friend Jamie knew John, he never once saw him initiate anything. He never picked on anyone, made fun of anyone, started fights. But if anyone took the piss out of John, he wouldn’t back down. He was the one who usually got punished if anything kicked off. His sister, Joanna, worried about him. Anyone who said, “Oh, John, do this”, he would go and do it. That was his way of making friends. So when, as a 14-year-old, he fell in with a group of boys who kept getting into trouble, the family grew concerned.

At a certain point, Lynn wondered if there was something she was missing about her son, some deeper reason why he was struggling socially. She took him to the doctor and he was referred to a psychologist for a six-week assessment. At the end the psychologist told her there was nothing wrong with him. He was just a rebellious teenager.

In 2003, John’s older brother, Daniel, who was then 16, was sentenced to three months in a young offender institution, for taking part in a high-speed car chase. The family would visit him, and 13-year-old John seemed impressed. He said a couple of times how cool prison seemed. When Daniel tried to set him straight, it felt as if John wasn’t really taking it in. Daniel felt his little brother didn’t listen to him like he used to.

When he was 16, John was arrested for a street robbery or burglary (Daniel can’t remember exactly which; this was almost two decades ago, and so much has happened since). What Daniel does remember is John telling him that he had made a deal with the police. They told him: the more crimes you admit to, the less time we’ll give you. They had a list of crimes that had happened in the area, and John went through them. He told Daniel later that out of the ones he had admitted to, four were genuine. The rest – there were dozens – were all crimes he hadn’t done. It seemed like a good deal at the time.

When John got out, he didn’t talk much about his time in the young offender institution, but Daniel thought he seemed different. He was a lot bigger; he’d gone to the gym a lot inside. He also had this attitude that he hadn’t had before. From his own experience inside, Daniel knew that prison required you to constantly protect yourself. It soured you.

John started meeting with a man named Alex Walker, who worked for the children’s charity Barnardo’s and had helped Daniel get his life back on track after his own stint in prison. Walker only worked with John for about six months, but there were promising signs, just small things. Even though John didn’t talk a lot, he consistently showed up for their meetings. He started to come home earlier, started apologising for things at home, stopped answering back so much. It was subtle, but the family were picking up on it. Walker fed this back to John: “Guess what your mum said – don’t say nothing, but she did say you come in, and big respect to you and all that.” And John didn’t say anything, but Walker knew it resonated with him. He’d notice a slight smirk, not a smile, just the tiniest flicker. And then he was back to himself. But Walker would think: “Ah, saw you. Got you.”

Walker knew from experience that change isn’t perfectly linear. It’s something that takes time and patience. Walker sometimes worked with the same young person for up to five years. He still believes he could have helped John, if they had worked together longer.

On the evening of 21 April 2007, Lynn got a phone call from the police. John had stolen a 15-year-old boy’s bike in a park. He had asked the boy if he wanted to sell his bike, and when the boy refused, had head-butted him in the face before punching him several times. He tried to ride off on the boy’s bike, but was caught by a policeman who was on patrol in the park. John was charged with robbery and given a court date for the following month. The family were upset, but they understood that John would do some time inside. A few years, at the most, they thought.

Instead, at the age of 17, for assaulting someone and stealing their bike, John would receive a potentially never-ending sentence. Seventeen years later, he is still in jail.

To understand the nightmare John found himself in, you have to go back seven years. In July 2000, eight-year-old Sarah Payne was abducted from a sleepy village in West Sussex and murdered by a man named Roy Whiting. Five years earlier, Whiting had been convicted for abducting and sexually assaulting another little girl. He was released from prison after serving just under two and a half years. When Whiting’s history came to light, the press and public were outraged.

Labour ministers came to believe that such cases demanded a new sort of sentence, one that would protect the public from offenders whose crimes might not be sufficient to warrant a life sentence, but who might still be considered particularly dangerous. “What struck me at the time,” David Blunkett, who was home secretary from 2001 to 2004, told me recently, “was that all we were doing, we were parking people rather than attempting to do something about ensuring that when they came out they wouldn’t commit the same offences again.”

In 2002, the government white paper Justice for All suggested creating a new indeterminate sentence to “ensure that dangerous violent and sexual offenders stay in custody for as long as they present a risk to society”. One year later, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 created the imprisonment for public protection sentence (IPP).

This new type of sentence, which began to be used in April 2005, gave offenders a minimum term – known as a tariff – that they had to spend in prison. On completing their tariff, they could then apply to the Parole Board for release. If unsuccessful, they would remain in prison until the Parole Board was satisfied. In practice, this meant that they could be detained indefinitely. It was “better safe than sorry” in legislative form. Even if granted release, the prisoner would remain under “life licence” – effectively a minimum 10-year parole period, during which they ran the risk of being recalled to prison for even minor breaches of the conditions of their release. If they were recalled, the process would start from the beginning. They could expect to wait up to two years before their next parole hearing to seek release.

There were two conditions under which an IPP could be given. First, if a person had committed an offence that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years or more. Second, if the court believed that there was a significant risk of the public being seriously harmed by the same person carrying out “further specified offences” – a list that amounted to more than 100 crimes.

Prof Harry Annison, who has written an authoritative account of the history of the IPP sentence, notes that it essentially applied the structure of a life sentence – a minimum term, after which the prisoner is eligible for parole – to a vastly expanded number of crimes. When I spoke to Pete Weatherby KC, a barrister who has represented many IPP offenders, he pointed out how an offence such as robbery is so broadly defined that it can encompass even relatively minor wrongdoing. He cited the 2007 case of a man sentenced to IPP having been charged with robbery for his involvement in a bag-snatch case.

On 23 May 2007, John was given an indeterminate sentence of detention for public protection, the IPP equivalent given to those under 18.

All the crimes John had previously told police he had committed (whether he had or not) spoke against him. The judge described his criminal record as “atrocious” – it suggested he had carried out 44 offences between July 2003 and August 2006. The judge also referred to the fact that John was on parole from his previous prison sentence when he committed this latest crime. For him, this was evidence that a determinate sentence would not adequately protect the public from further harm. The minimum time he would serve in prison – his “tariff” – was one year and 350 days.

John’s family do not recall anyone at court explaining what the judgment meant, so they assumed the tariff was the full sentence. In other words, what they took to be the maximum amount of time John could serve was, in fact, the minimum. They have no memory of anyone explaining that John could, in theory, be detained for the rest of his life. This does not sound like an anomaly. I spoke to Andrew Morris, an IPP holder who is now out on licence. He was incarcerated in 2007 for false imprisonment and threats to kill. At the time he was sentenced, he says he did not understand the nature of his sentence. He only learned what an IPP sentence was from other prisoners and from articles in Inside Time, the newspaper distributed throughout the prison system. Just as in John’s case, he claimed that nobody properly explained to his family what IPP was, either.

John began his sentence in a young offender institution not far from the family home. At the time, one of John’s cousins was also serving a sentence in the same prison. He remembers John often inviting him into his cell for some instant noodles, which were piled up in stacks. According to the cousin, John was the same as usual – kind and quiet – but kept getting into fights.

IPP inmates were easy targets for other prisoners. If you, a fixed-sentence prisoner, had a fight with someone sentenced to IPP and you both got caught, it might not mean much for you. After all, you had a definite release date. But for an IPP inmate, it could mean they would get turned down for release at their next parole hearing, and it would go on their record and keep counting against them in the future. The stakes for the IPP prisoner were higher, which made them less likely to fight back, which made them vulnerable to being coerced into doing other prisoners’ dirty work, such as drug dealing. Housing these two types of prisoners together was just one of the ways IPP sentences had been poorly conceived.

John was initially “on basic” – the level assigned to prisoners who haven’t abided by the behaviour principles of the prison. It meant he wasn’t allowed any extras such as a TV or a radio. His cousin tried to motivate him, and eventually he was upgraded to the standard level. He reckoned John had struck upon the right path because he still had hope.

As the two-year point – the end of his tariff – drew closer, John got excited, and so did his family. With six months to go, they started psychologically preparing for him to come home. But like any other IPP inmate, when his tariff expired, on 8 May 2009, John wasn’t automatically released. He had to go before the Parole Board, which would grant release only if they were “satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public” that John continue to be locked up.

At these hearings, which take place face-to-face in prison or via video link, the prisoner must answer questions put to them by the board. (Prisoners are encouraged to have legal representation, but this isn’t compulsory.) The onus is on the prisoner to prove that they are not dangerous, which is easier said than done. Largely, the way prisoners achieve this – besides good behaviour and demonstrating a decent post-prison plan for accommodation and work – is by completing offender behaviour programmes. These generally use cognitive behavioural therapy principles to try to encourage more constructive thinking and better behaviour. Morris told me that, during his time in prison, he had waited about four years to get a place on the Healthy Relationships programme, though he didn’t remember a great deal of what he had learned.

John seems not to have understood the importance of completing courses for his chances of release. After his parole hearing, he was told he hadn’t done enough rehabilitation work. He would have to stay in prison at least two more years, or until the Parole Board decided he was no longer a risk to the public.

John’s family were gobsmacked when they heard he’d been knocked back. They didn’t know what to make of it. But John resolved to do everything he could to secure his release at his next hearing, in two years’ time. When he saw other IPP prisoners get knocked back after their tariff expired, he doubled down on completing the offender behaviour courses. He started going to the gym regularly, he enrolled on a mechanics course, he even had a hobby – woodwork, Lynn told me wonderingly. He got a job inside as a cleaner to make a bit of money for cigarettes. He did his utmost to show that he had reformed. He told his brother not to worry, that his solicitor was sorting everything out, that he’d get out soon enough.

Over the next few years, John kept getting moved from prison to prison. It had been easy visiting regularly when he was not far from the family home, but as he was sent to increasingly distant locations, it grew harder. At certain points, Daniel had to rally the family and try to organise a schedule so John would get a weekly visit from someone. Every time he was moved, it felt like the prison was further away. To his family, it felt like the system was deliberately trying to erode their relationship with John.

By 2012, John was 23, and in a tough men’s prison in Nottinghamshire, where the synthetic cannabinoid spice was readily available. One day John was passed a cigarette. John claimed that, unbeknown to him, it was spiked with spice. He’d never tried the drug before, and had told his brother he’d never touch the stuff. After smoking it, he passed out. This meant he got caught: another black mark for his record.

In December 2012, the IPP sentence was abolished. By this point, the sentence was largely believed to be a failure. Far more IPP sentences had been handed out than had ever been intended. At the time IPP sentences were introduced, Hilary Benn, then prisons minister, estimated that an average of about 900 people would be serving IPP sentences at any given time. By the time the sentence was abolished, there were roughly 6,000 prisoners serving IPP sentences. This imposed a considerable strain on a system already wounded by constant budget cuts from 2008 onwards. “The IPP sentence contributed to a radical reshaping of the English prison population,” says Annison.

In making the case for abolishing IPP sentences, the then justice secretary, Ken Clarke, described them as “unjust to the people in question and completely inconsistent with the policy of punishment, reform and rehabilitation”. Yet when the change in law came, it did not apply to those who had already received IPP sentences. All of these prisoners would continue to serve indeterminate sentences under exactly the same arrangement under which they were convicted. For prisoners still serving IPPs, including John, the abolition of the sentence meant nothing.

In 2015, the Parole Board once again turned John down for release: he had been involved in violence and he had taken spice, so they weren’t satisfied. John’s mum couldn’t believe it: she didn’t understand how they could knock him back when he’d been trying so hard. By this point, it was almost a decade after John had committed the crime for which he had been jailed.

John became increasingly disheartened. When the family visited shortly after his 2015 parole rejection, he seemed spaced out and barely spoke to them. A few years earlier, his cousin had thought that John would make it through because he had hope. Now, the inverse began to seem true. His behaviour became erratic: he had blackouts, violent episodes, he would defecate or urinate in the cell without using the toilet. He stopped coming out of his cell for association, for gym and for meals, and stopped mixing with the other prisoners.

John’s family grew increasingly worried. He kept telling his brother that he was going to do something and that Daniel wouldn’t understand it right away, but that he’d understand later. Daniel wondered if he was talking about protest, or something darker. In a succession of phone calls with his sister, Joanna, John seemed to believe he was a different person each time.

He stopped eating. He told his family that the prison guards were spitting in his food or looking at him through the cell door and laughing at him. His family didn’t know what to make of these claims, but having been inside himself, Daniel knew that prison officers didn’t tend to do well with prisoners with mental health issues. Blackouts, disobedience and dirty protests all meant extra work for them. He remembered how brutal the guards could be if they wanted to.

The jail prescribed John a high dosage of the antidepressant mirtazapine. The medication caused him to fall asleep at random, lose his temper easily and slur his words. In July 2017, Daniel visited John. “Went to see John today,” he wrote in an email to a friend. “He’s been put on high dose of mirtazapine for depression as he has no drive and is having suicidal thoughts. Probation have told him not to be depressed and not to tell anyone because it will harm his chance of release :S ”

The following month, John told Daniel he tried to go to the mental health worker in the prison for advice. When he visited his office and blurted out that he was ready to kill himself, the man told John he was busy, and to come back in 10 minutes. Immediately after, John got into a fight with an inmate and was put into solitary confinement for three and a half weeks. At some point towards the end of 2017, he was moved to another prison, half an hour’s drive away. According to an email from John’s father, Isaac, to his MP at the time, they weren’t able to coordinate visits with John at the new prison until “he was settled in”. While he had once phoned every day, now there was a long period of silence.

On 12 April 2018, John was found in a catatonic state in his cell: conscious but unresponsive. He was transferred to a mental health hospital in Staffordshire, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The hospital phoned the family to explain that John had lost a lot of weight, but was still refusing to eat. They were concerned he might die, and urged his family to come and visit as soon as they could.

The first time the family visited him there, they were shocked. The last time they’d seen him had been six months earlier. John had gone from a big, strong man to just bones: the T-shirt he was wearing looked like a dress on him. Joanna remembers the way he was looking back at her, as if he was looking into her soul. A doctor at the hospital told John’s mum in confidence that he believed the IPP sentence had done this to him.

The “uncertainty inherent in the sentence” is one major reason why IPPs are so psychologically damaging, noted a 2022 justice committee report. “Due to release being conditional on parole,” it continued, “there is no way for a prisoner to know when, if ever, they will be released.” In 2015, the Prison Reform Trust reported that the incidence of self-harm was more than twice as high for IPP prisoners than for prisoners serving a life sentence. Last year, a UN torture expert, Alice Jill Edwards, wrote an open letter to the UK government in which she equated the sentence with torture.

As a psychologist noted in the justice committee report, the IPP sentence creates a vicious circle. There’s plenty of evidence that the IPP sentence significantly worsens your mental health – but if you demonstrate mental illness, you’re less likely to be released, since parole boards see mental illness as a risk factor.

At the institution in Staffordshire, John’s mental health continued to deteriorate. Because he was so thin, during one of her visits, his mum asked if he was eating. He shook his head. “He didn’t murder food,” he said. What did he mean? “Well, when you eat an apple,” John explained, “that apple was quite happy running about in a field till you killed it.” It was then that Lynn knew she’d lost him, she told me.

Once a week, the hospital gave him electro­convulsive therapy, a treatment for schizophrenia that felt like another form of punishment. He would call Joanna or Lynn on a weekly basis and scream or cry down the phone, begging them to help. He claimed the hospital staff would come and put him in a wheelchair, and strap him down against his wishes.

Daniel felt the treatment fundamentally changed his brother’s personality. It made him calmer, but that playfulness that had always been such a key part of him had gone. His taste in music changed, too. Previously, he’d loved rap and hip-hop: Tupac, Mobb Deep, Dr Dre. Now he’d get Daniel to play this one melancholy song to him over and over down the phone, Happier, by Marshmello.

Previously, John had opted for his family to be able to see his medical records, but after a while, the clinical team told the family that they wouldn’t be able to communicate anything medically confidential – “in line with his wishes”. As the hospital gave John more medication, his family thought he seemed increasingly paranoid. There were now periods where John didn’t want to be in touch with them.

A few months into his stay, Lynn had been pushing for power of attorney. If John permitted them to make decisions on his behalf, they would be able to work with a solicitor to fight his case. John refused, and claimed that the solicitors were trying to kill him. He also told his family he believed the solicitors were the ones that had sent him to the mental hospital. After this, he ceased contact with almost all of the family for about a year and a half. Even with Daniel, whom he still seemed to trust, he would frequently go quiet for weeks at a time.

In May 2019, during a period when John was out of contact with his family, his father, Isaac, was diagnosed with cancer. By April 2020, Isaac was close to death. The family was ringing the psychiatric hospital over and over. Isaac wanted to say goodbye to John. Each time they rang, the staff said something different: John was asleep, or he didn’t wish to speak to his father, or something else. Eventually they told Joanna that if she let them know when Isaac died, they would tell John. When Isaac passed away two days later, she asked the hospital to tell John that his dad was proud of him and that he would get out, and Joanna promised she would continue fighting for him.

A week later, John called his sister. “Why are you lying to me?” he said. “Dad’s not dead.” Joanna confirmed that he was. “Nah, he’s still there,” John said. “He’s going to beat me up, isn’t he?” Isaac had been big on discipline, and sometimes he had been harsh to his children, but Joanna didn’t think he had been as bad as John seemed to think.

John invited Joanna to visit him, but when they met, the happiness of seeing him for the first time in a year was soured: he still didn’t believe her about their father’s death.

By January 2021, John seemed increasingly paranoid. At the end of the month he fired off a number of messages to his brother:

Where r u now”, he texted.

“At work. What’s happening?” Daniel texted back.

“When can u ring”

“Important shit”

“You OK?” Daniel replied later. “You can text me, I’m out and about. What’s going on”

“Just wanna talk”

“Am ok just thinkin”

Then later: “Just been thinkin wanna sort a visit for tuesday wanna get some stuff off my chest it is very important bro mum and joanna r comin to hope it can happen please

But Daniel had to work, so they arranged a video call instead. In the call, John told his brother he knew he’d done something really bad, because why else would he have been incarcerated for almost 14 years? “You all know what I’ve done,” he said. “Just tell me – it can’t just be for taking a bike.”

He wanted to talk about their childhood: John claimed that he had been punished more than his siblings because there had been something wrong with him. He must have been evil, growing up, he said. Before they finished the call, John said something that troubled his brother: “I love you but I can’t do it any more. If something happens to me soon, just know that I love you.”

The conversation with John was disturbing, but in one way, he was right. He hadn’t been incarcerated for almost 14 years for assault and stealing a bike. He had completed his time in prison for that crime more than a decade earlier. Now he was serving time for crimes the Parole Board thought he might be capable of if he were released. In a debate in the House of Lords in November 2021, Lord Brown, a former justice of the supreme court, put it this way: “IPPs are being punished for what they might do in future.” This kind of sentence was, he said, “preventive detention” and as such “alien and inimical to our system of law”.

In the summer of 2021, John’s mum and Joanna were sitting in the park when he phoned. “I’ve got to go now,” John told Lynn. Assuming he was being moved again, she asked where he was being transferred to. “No, I’ve had enough,” he told her. “I’ve got to do it now because my life’s finished anyway.” He was going to kill himself, he said.

At this, Lynn looked pointedly at Joanna and repeated John’s words: “You’re going to kill yourself? You’ve got a weapon?” Joanna began dialling the number for the hospital. According to the staff, they were able to intervene. John called his mum back a few days later and swore down the phone at her. She’d betrayed his trust, he said. That was the last she ever heard from him. He cut off all contact with her and the rest of the family.

In October 2023, Joanna called the hospital, hoping he might decide to come to the phone that day. “John who?” said the woman on the phone. “My brother,” she said. “He’s been in your hospital for years.” The woman hesitated. Let me speak to a manager, she said. Joanna waited for 10 minutes, full of dread. Instead, when the woman returned, she said John had gone back to prison.

How can he have gone back to prison? Joanna demanded. He’s not well, he’s been on 24-hour watch for years. “Oh, well,” the woman on the phone said. “John was in agreement, so we sent him back. That’s all we can tell you.” She wouldn’t say what prison he was at.

John’s story is one of thousands. According to the latest government statistics, there are currently 2,796 prisoners serving IPP sentences and about 3,000 out on licence. Yet, even being granted licence is no end to the horror of IPP, given the low threshold for being recalled to prison. In January 2023, 43-year-old IPP offender Francis Williams was out on licence when he lost his place in a hostel. One of the conditions of the licence is to have steady accommodation, and he realised he could face recall to prison. He told his probation officer he would take his own life if that happened. The probation officer alerted Sussex police that Williams was a suicide risk but the following day his body was found in Bognor Regis. (With regard to the licence, there is some hope for reform: the victims and prisoners bill, which is working its way through parliament, proposes reducing this parole period to a maximum of five years, with the possibility of review after three years.)

In September 2022, the justice committee concluded its year-long inquiry and argued that IPP sentences were “irredeemably flawed”. The main recommendation of its subsequent report was for the resentencing of all people serving IPP, something it argued could be done in a staggered and practical way. Yet successive justice secretaries have avoided measures that would lead to the direct release of IPP prisoners, most likely owing to fears about seeming to put the public at risk. The political risk is just too high. “By drafting legislation addressing ‘dangerous offenders’, the government responsible for it created a sentence that writes its own tabloid headlines,” said Prof Annison.

In a statement, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have reduced the number of unreleased IPP prisoners by three-quarters since we scrapped the sentence in 2012, and continue to help those still in custody to progress towards release – including improving access to rehabilitation programmes and mental health support. The number of IPP prisoners has fallen 12% in the last year alone.”

Blunkett has been working to correct what he set in motion with the IPP. For the past 12 years, he has been regularly corresponding with IPP prisoners, visiting them and endeavouring to make changes in the law. “I got it wrong [on IPPs]. The government now have the chance to get it right,” he said during a 2021 committee stage debate about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. He recently told the Guardian that the introduction of the IPP sentence was his “biggest regret” from his time in government.

John Wright has now been inside for 17 years – half of his life – for making a mistake as a teenager. After confirming rumours of his location with a member of staff at the prison he’s incarcerated in, I wrote to him multiple times for this story. I did not receive a reply. At the time of reporting, he does not seem to be in contact with anyone outside of prison.

His mum told me she feels she’s been robbed of her son. She’s angry that she never got to know him as an adult. It’s something that’s with her all the time. She thinks about how Isaac died without knowing if his son would ever get out, and how he wasn’t able to say goodbye to him. She worries about getting a phone call from prison, imagining asking the person on the other end if he’s still alive. It’s like living in a nightmare.

When I visited Joanna at her home late last year, she was holding a wriggling French bulldog in her lap as we spoke. She has two daughters, and she hopes one day John could get to know his nieces better. Her oldest daughter reminds her so much of him. John always loved animals, she tells me, and he’d like her pets. He used to like chatting to his niece on the phone. She still holds out hope her family might get him back. She thinks he could be happy back in the world outside prison.

The names of John, his family, schoolfriend and youth worker have been changed to protect John’s anonymity

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or you can email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at

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