This is a metaphor. Photograph: Getty Images
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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

Sue Anderson and family
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“I'm to blame”: Blunkett's indefinite prison sentences and the thousands still locked up without hope

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were ruled a violation of human rights.

It was around the time her parents split up that 14-year-old Charlotte Nokes, known as Charlie, the “fun, wacky, popular, sociable child”, started misbehaving.

Her older sister, Rachel, had noticed her getting into trouble but put it down to Charlie having more spare energy after she’d given up judo and football. By trouble, she means smoking, climbing out of the window when she was asked to stay in, normal antics.

OK, maybe “not that normal”, concedes Rachel, but the kind of stunts and petty crimes to be expected from a frustrated teenager living on Hampshire's Hayling Island railing against her small-town boredom.

Certainly not the type of crimes that would see her die in prison under a 99-year Indefinite Prison Sentence.

Maybe it started with Charlie’s new-found independence working in a local butcher’s, her younger brother Steven soaking up much-needed attention from her now-single mother. Maybe it was her GP’s failed attempts to secure her the necessary treatment for depression, which turned into an alcohol-turned-heroin-turned-crack addiction. Maybe that sent her off the rails?

“It’s the chicken or the egg thing really,” sighs Rachel. “It could’ve been there underlying and the drugs exacerbated it, but you don’t really know do you?”

It was 2007. Charlie was 29 years old and looking for her next hit. Sitting outside a corner shop in Portsmouth, she settled to her regular routine. Skeletal, desperate, she would beg until she scraped enough money together for that glorious hit of white gold crack.

When one woman refused to give her money, Charlie brought out a knife. Not close enough to stab her – but near enough to scare the life out of her. “Quite rightly this woman was fairly traumatised by it”, says Rachel.

On Charlie’s 30th birthday she was given an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence and was due to serve 16 months at HMP Peterborough. Nine years later, in July 2016, she died in prison.

The IPP sentence

Introduced in 2003 by Lord David Blunkett, Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences (IPPs) were designed to detain serious offenders, mostly sex offenders, who were perceived to be a risk to the public. The Home Office initially estimated that they’d incarcerate just 900 dangerous criminals under the sentence.

Like a normal prisoner, criminals would be given a tariff, such as Charlie’s 16 months, but could be kept in prison indefinitely as long as the Parole Board believed they still posed a threat.

The Parole Board would assess the prisoners’ continued risk based on psychiatrist and prison guard reports at Parole Board Hearings that take place about once a year for each offender. Some of the hearings are oral, some of them written.

By 2010 there were approximately 10,000 prisoners serving IPP sentences, over ten times more than intended when they were first brought in under the Criminal Justice Act in 2003.

In 2012, the sentence was abolished under the Coalition government thanks to a European Court ruling that claimed it violated human rights.

However, its abolition wasn’t retrospective, meaning there are still 3,500 prisoners serving the sentence without a release date, costing those inside their sanity and the taxpayer approximately £131m per year.

Read more: Why we should stop locking up drug addicts and the mentally ill

Andrew Neilson, head of campaigns at the prison charity, The Howard League for Penal Reform, says: “We are largely now talking about people who are post-tariff. You’re in a tunnel with no light at the end of it.”

“It’s terrible,” adds Rachel. “It just seems so inhumane. The punishment is not suited to the crime. I’m not saying they’re angels. They’ve all done something wrong, but Charlotte was on a 16-month sentence and when she died she’d been in there almost nine years. You’ve just taken away the human element of hope haven’t you?”

Fifteen years since the IPP’s implementation, and five years since it was abolished, its creator Lord David Blunkett says he made a mistake. “I’m to blame for IPP,” he says in an exclusive interview, “and we would do it differently now.

“If I had my time again I would have ensured from the beginning that the IPP could only be applied for people with very substantial tariffs,” he says, quickly adding that the Treasury could have allocated more money for prison education programmes and that the Parole Board could have been more efficient with releasing the IPP prisoners once they no longer posed a perceived threat.

But Andrew Neilson says the Labour government “did have the money to throw at the prison system” in 2007-8 when the overcrowding and understaffing crisis hit. In fact, for him the crisis, which continues today, “was directly the cause of the IPP influx”.   

He believes the government “should have been much tighter in the offences that they defined as liable for getting an IPP” to avoid such extreme overcrowding.

But having agreed that the sentence should have only applied for those with substantial tariffs, Blunkett says this wasn’t really his fault, rather the judiciary’s: “The message from the judges at the time was, ‘well you might pass the law but sentencing should be left to us.’”

Lord Blunkett insists he does regret how the sentence was implemented, “if we’re into the blame game,” he says. “But I don’t regret the principle, which was to protect the public from extremely dangerous prisoners who, in several cases, admitted themselves they were likely to reoffend.”

The families left behind

The IPP Families Campaign was set up by Katherine Gleeson in 2003 after a relative was sentenced to the punishment. She remembers: “I set up a 24-hour desk at home and then started working straight away.”

Gleeson now receives hundreds of emails a day from families in need of support and has met with the chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, on several occasions to speak about IPP. However, he refused to comment on this article.

“You can’t really determine risk. I can’t say that every time I cross over the road that I’m going to get run over,” insists Gleeson, “I mean there’s no proof. None of the IPP prisoners are any more a risk than a normal prisoner and these IPPs actually have minor sentences compared to the rest of the prison population.” 

Katherine Gleeson

Gleeson’s relative Jason was a regular kid. He got in a fight and was given the maximum tariff of five years for ABH with intent, or in other words, common assault. 

“I remember getting a call from Jason and him saying ‘oh my god you’re not going to believe this, they’ve given me a 99-year sentence, a life sentence,’” she says, “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

“You know, most of us have counselling and it’s just like living with a death that just keeps going. You don’t see any end to it. I had a mother just today who says she’s at her wits’ end and she feels like taking her own life,” she says. 

They were told that if Jason took the relevant educational courses, he might be released sooner and so Katherine and Jason started to work together to get him out. Katherine would scour the internet for the best courses, checking which prisons conducted them, and sharing all the information with him from the outside. 

Meanwhile Jason would apply to the Governor, asking to be moved to a different prison where a course was taking place. She says: “Then he got moved out to another prison to find out that the actual course was full so then we had to apply for another move and sometimes they would say the courses were there and they weren’t.”

“There is no light”

Unfortunately, another IPP prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous doesn’t have a family member like Katherine to help him. James* is currently nine years over his two-and-a-half-year sentence for aggravated burglary and has been refused release four times, after the Parole Board suggested each time he complete a specific course despite him having served his tariff. 

In one instance, James had already been accredited with a course, but it had since been re-named and so he had to take it again. In another instance he was asked to complete a course that he was later told he didn’t fit the criteria for. The most recent course suggestion is not even available at his current prison. 

In a letter to the Parole Board, James says: “All accredited offending behaviour programmes have submitted positive reports,” but “when I try to ask for help, I receive none. When I ask what I have to do, no one has given the answer. When I try to be assertive, I get ignored…If I become passive, I get told I’m not motivated.

“There is no light. Serving a twenty-year sentence, still with no light, for something I shouldn’t have served more than five years for isn’t justice. It’s just wrong."

Katherine Gleeson claims: “Nick Hardwick said they don’t even have to do the courses. The staff or agencies are undermining each other. They’re still saying you have to do this course with this course, so I don’t understand. They’re told they don’t even have to do the courses because they’ve served their sentence already.”

Andrew Neilson says it’s a “Kafka-esque situation” where “you’ve got people in the system who need to prove that they’re no longer dangerous but they have no means to do that because the availability of courses and interventions are still an issue”.

Katherine Gleeson’s relative Jason soon cottoned on to this subversive parole system. As he became more comfortable in prison, he started to interview the other IPP inmates. He quickly worked out that no one had been released after their first time applying for parole once they’d served their tariff.

Instead, he served his five years and then purposefully waited another year before going to the psychiatrist for his assessment and referral to the Parole Board for release. According to Katherine, his thinking was: “If he applied for parole and never got it, when he went to apply again they would say ‘Oh well why didn’t the other parole let him out? There must be something wrong there.’”

Jason’s plan worked and he was released just one year over his tariff. Katherine claims Jason’s fortune is extremely rare under the IPP sentence, as many others remain stranded behind bars.

Following a recent lecture given by Nick Hardwick, Andrew Neilson believes the Parole Board is taking significant steps to ensure more IPP prisoners are released, shown by the number of rising from 140 in 2010 to 715 in 2015.

Nielson says: “He’s [Hardwick] front-loaded his budget to recruit new Parole Board members and to get more hearings up and running and that is happening.”

However, due to continued prison overcrowding, Neilson says: “There were a number of Parole Board hearings scheduled and then a lot of them didn’t take place because there were staff shortages and they couldn’t get the prisoners out of their cells. The Parole Board can do what it can but it is dependent on the system being able to deliver and at the moment it’s struggling.”

But following a conversation with an IPP inmate whose release date has been set back by six months, Katherine Gleeson worries the prison system is purposefully holding IPP prisoners and blighting their chances of release.

Gleeson has received four letters from inmates claiming their release date has been pushed back thanks to offender managers filling out their pre-Parole Board hearing paperwork wrong. She suggests this is because of the scant availability of adequate aftercare resources, saying: “They haven’t got the hostels for them afterwards so they’re holding them.”

“Guantanamo Bay? That’s possibly a bit far, but in terms of it being a festering injustice that has not been properly dealt with then, yes,” says Andrew Neilson of The Howard League for Penal Reform, the IPP sentence is “comparable”.

A life licence “horror story”

Even upon release, IPP prisoners must live under a ten-year life licence.

This requires a former prisoner to report to probabtion services at regular intervals for ten years. If a former prisoner does not attend for any reason, including, as Gleeson points out, problems with time-keeping due to learning difficulties, which approximately 80 per cent of the prison population are living with, they can be re-incarcerated.

Kipp Bassett was originally given three years and four months on an IPP sentence for GBH with intent in 2008. He got into an alcohol-induced pub fight and glassed a man caught in the crossfire.

He says: “It’s obviously something I’m definitely not proud of and it’s something I really regret for myself and also for my family, especially my daughter.” He admits the incident came about because “I hadn’t dealt with certain issues around my drinking.” He was released six years over his sentence in 2013.

But it was only in December 2015, after Kipp had been officially released from prison, that he experienced the real IPP “horror story”. He had a shouting match in the street with a neighbour and was immediately recalled to prison, even though he wasn’t guilty of an offence. He remembers: “Even the judge was saying this is absolutely ridiculous.”

Kipp was held in prison for 11 months with no charge until September 2016.

He blames the Parole Board for his unnecessary incarceration. Kipp was meant to have a hearing two weeks after he went to court, but no one notified him or his solicitor that it was happening. So that date passed and he was given another date in April, but a member of the Parole Board couldn’t make the hearing, for one reason or another – he wasn’t really told.

“I was supposed to have another one in July and something else happened. In the end I got one in August,” Kipp says. Even though he was awarded £2,500 compensation from the Parole Board, he says: “That’s irrelevant, you can’t get back 11 months.”

Andrew Neilson says the issues of recall and life licences under the IPP sentence are particularly high on The Howard League of Penal Reform’s agenda, as they see more cases like Kipp’s occurring.

“We’re already aware of people under the licence being recalled to custody for things like missing appointments, not new crimes, but breaching administrative conditions,” says Nielson.

He continues: “They haven’t committed murder or very violent crimes; some of the IPPs, as well documented, are people who were prosecuted for arson because they set fire to a bin. Should someone in that circumstance, never mind get an indeterminate sentence, have a life licence when they get released?” 

Kipp must follow strict conditions to avoid being sent back to prison. He can’t leave the country for ten years and he must register each new romantic relationship with probation, despite the fact he has never been charged with a sexual or domestic offence. 

Sure, “it can be awkward with a girl”, he says, but the travel ban is Kipp’s main sadness. He says: “I want to take my daughter around the world. We want to go to Australia, but I can’t for another ten years”.

Kipp’s daughter has cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that requires hours of physical therapy each day to move sticky mucus away from her lungs and digestive tract.  

 “You need to give someone some kind of hope,” says Kipp. “People pick up the Inside Time [prison] magazine and just read horror stories, horror stories, horror stories and then after a bit of time… that’s you.” 

 Kipp and Jason both got out of prison, but Charlie Nokes never did.

Good night, Charlie

Her sister Rachel remembers: “When she passed away everyone in the prison described the same Charlotte from our childhood.”

The “entertainer”, the kid who started bands and taught herself guitar, who cracked jokes and wore too many colours. “Sometimes I’d go and visit her in prison and be like ‘Oh my god what are you wearing?’ and she’d say ‘What? I look awesome’,” remembers Rachel, laughing. 

In fact, Charlie’s “amazing” creativity thrived behind bars. She would design and paint murals on the cell walls and all over the back of her door with art materials she’d been given by the Koestler Trust, a charity which encourages art as a form of rehabilitation.

Charlie’s artistic talent caused quite a stir in the "outside" art world as well. She would enter the Koestler Trust Awards each year, changing her style so no one could guess it was her. Her work was thought of so highly that one of London’s most prestigious art schools, Central Saint Martins, offered her an unconditional place to study there upon her release. Charlie was, of course, never able to take this up.

“After she died, we kept thinking ‘Oh I wish I could talk to her about that’, you know? I wish she’d spoken to us about it more when she was alive. Quite often her art was quite abstract and you’d see stuff and you’d want to go and ask her about it. But I can’t,” says Rachel. 

But Charlie’s “wacky dressing” and abstract paintings increasingly served to hide a darker, more tortured person, despite her efforts to stay positive in the earlier months of her sentence. By the end of her time in prison, Charlie had been diagnosed with multiple different personality and mental health disorders. 

Rachel remembers: “Every time she saw a different psychiatrist they gave her a different diagnosis and then stopped her medication all together. Then she would go off the rails because she just felt awful and then they would sort of punish her for that. I think that’s quite often why her IPP got extended and then they put her on another cocktail of medication and so on.”

She continues: “Last time we visited her, she was so medicated that she would just lose her thread while she was talking to us and just stare off into space. She was so heavily medicated by the end that she would fall over without realising she’d fallen over.”

At just 37 years old, Charlie’s mental health was deemed so poor that it was suggested she have her womb surgically removed to control her mood swings, with the operation to be performed by an NHS doctor.

Charlie officially consented to the hysterectomy. “But I’m not sure she was in the right place to be able to consent,” Rachel admits. “It’s something that bothers me and all of us really.” 

In this way, she believes that “most women on IPPs should not be in prison, most of them should be in mental health institutions or psychiatric wards”, and that the relevant facilities just aren’t available.

“We met a couple of others in prison, most of them are on wards because they were self-harming so badly and to be quite honest most of the women that were in the long-term wing that Charlotte was in shouldn’t have been in prison. A lot of women end up being put into prison and not treated properly due to the lack of spaces,” she says. 

A short time after her surgery, Charlie’s father came to visit her and she was feeling hopeful for the first time in years. The Home Office told her she could be transferred to a secure psychiatric facility, and she could finally get the proper treatment she’d needed since adolescence. 

At the end of July 2016, Charlotte lay back in her bed and rolled a cigarette, looking over the cell she had made her own over the nine years she’d been in prison. She closed her eyes and fell into life’s last sleep.

“I don’t think she tried to kill herself. There were just prescribed drugs in her system, that’s all,” says Rachel, who is now waiting on further toxicology and mental health reports to see if her sister was on the correct types and doses of medication.

“I got a letter a week before she died,” remembers Rachel, “and I hadn’t got a chance to reply to her. Since we were children really we were like chalk and cheese but she was saying that it would be nice to build a relationship and get to know my children. But now, she never will.”

“Charlotte wasn’t a horrible person. She was still my sister, Mum and Dad’s daughter. You get defined by your crime and your addiction, which is sad in itself. Then get put in a box and stop being a person in society.”

There remain around 3,500 IPP prisoners incarcerated across the country, with little hope of release and the prospect of future suffering if they are let out thanks to overzealous recall conditions.

The problem is, admits Lord Blunkett, “there are no votes in investing in prisons or prisoners”.

* Name has been changed

This article was amnended on 17 August 2017 to correct a reference which said legal aid was not available for those applying to a Parole Board for release, and to make it clear that post release prisoners must report to probation services and not the Parole Board. 

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special