Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue