Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?