Charlotte Nokes: the brutality of indeterminate sentences

She was sentenced to 15 months minimum for attempted robbery and possession of a blade. Eight years later, she died in prison.

Linda Payne

Topics Politics UK

On 23 July 2016, Charlotte Nokes, aged 38, was found dead in her cell. It was determined that she died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. The young artist who once won a scholarship to study at a London art school had been sentenced to a minimum of 15 months for attempted robbery and possession of a blade. By the time she died she had been in prison for eight-and-a-half years.

Charlotte was given what’s called an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence, which means that release can only be granted once the parole board is satisfied the prisoner is of no threat to the public. She suffered from anxiety, depression and had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She also had a history of drug use and had struggled with her family’s breakup and coming out as gay.

IPPs were introduced in 2003 by the then Labour government. They were aimed primarily at tackling sex offenders. It was thought they would only be used in extreme cases. But concern grew at the increasing number of people being given this sentence, many of whom had psychiatric disorders. There have been a high number of suicides associated with these sentences.

IPPs were abolished in 2012, but this was not retrospective, meaning those still in prison were still subject to the old legislation. According to the Ministry of Defence, by the end of 2019 there were 2,134 IPP prisoners still in prison, 93 per cent of whom had served beyond their initial tariff.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr Dinesh Magnanty told the Guardian that people like Nokes can be caught in a ‘perfect storm’. When those plagued by mental-health problems are incarcerated indefinitely, ‘the sense of hope is gone’. He added that effective treatment for such people is very difficult to find in prison.

According to Nokes’ family, at the time of her death she was sedated, her mental-health was deteriorating further, and she was on suicide watch. The indeterminate sentence was the major thing she complained about during visits. She called it a ‘death sentence’.

IPPs must be abolished retrospectively. Too many people are being left to rot in jail for crimes that would have seen them released years ago if not for this legislation. And more needs to be done to help those in prison with mental-health problems.

Prisoners guilty of serious offences have to satisfy the parole board that they are reformed and no threat to the public before they are let out early. Those with mental illnesses already have more to contend with in this regard, as some diagnoses are unfairly linked with violence, when the truth is those people are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

Charlotte Nokes’ case should alert us to the tragic costs of the current system. As Charlotte’s father, Steven Nokes, has put it, ‘they might as well have thrown the key away’.

Linda Payne is a former nurse and voluntary worker.

Picture by: Nokes family.

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Neil McCaughan

8th March 2020 at 11:15 pm

C S Lewis described the indeterminate prison sentence in his novel describing a satanic dystopia “That Hideous Strength” a long generation before that dystopic spawn of Satan, Blair, made it a reality. The novel foretells a number of other modern horrors.

Aunty Podes

7th March 2020 at 10:15 am

I believe the concept of the IPP has great potential but, clearly in this case and probably in others, falls flat in its face in application. Each and every case requires constant and expert revision and supervision.

Ed Turnbull

6th March 2020 at 9:43 am

This article fails to explain the original justification for the imposition of an IPP on Charlotte Nokes (and I’m feeling too lazy to Google the history of this case). There may have been cogent reasons for applying an IPP, and those reasons may have continued to be valid at the time of Ms Nokes’ death.

I find the author’s ‘argument’ for the retrospective removal of IPP light on reasoning (I struggle to find any) and heavy on emotionalism. How are people being left to “rot in jail” if there’s a review process that can see them free if they meet the criteria for so doing? Is the author actually suggesting there’s some kind of ‘man in the iron mask’ protocol at play? Simply chuck ’em in a hole and forget about them? If she has evidence for this then she should present it.

I have no problem at all with IPPs as a concept – the public need protection from those adjudged to pose a genuine threat to life and limb – i don’t find it particularly illiberal but, of course, the implementation must be handled carefully.

It never ceases to amaze me how inconsistently our establishment applies the precautionary principle: it the case of that shimmering chimera Man Made Climate Change, they’re all for any and all fantastic scheme that’ll stave off the beast, no matter the cost. But when it comes to very real issues, such as knife crime in London or Islamic terrorism then it becomes a case of much foot shuffling and ‘nothing to see here, move along’.

Paul Duffin

6th March 2020 at 9:14 am

So, they can use IPPs on people who commit relatively minor offences who have mental health problems but not on literal terrorists who seem to exhibit a lot of mental health symptoms, delusions, etc.

Mark Houghton

6th March 2020 at 7:23 am

Isn’t it strange that we get a shitload of media coverage in this case – I strongly suspect that as in the case of Caroline Flack, when a woman dies it gets media attention. When a man dies in similar circumstances all we get is the sound of crickets. Men, it seems, are disposable.

steven brook

6th March 2020 at 8:29 am

I’m thinking of writing an article on men’s rights with regard abortion. The trouble is it would be rather short, you don’t have any! You only have responsibilities because you are a man and by definition a potential papist and even if you’re not one of them you’re definitely a dastard. So shut up, pay up, and enjoy the patriarch.

Ed Turnbull

6th March 2020 at 9:28 am

A potential papist?! How dare you sir! I will NEVER bow to Rome! Never! No surrender! 🙂

(This comment was brought to you by the Ghost of Ian Paisley. You’re welcome).

steven brook

6th March 2020 at 5:52 am

If this person genuinely didn’t pose a threat to society they should have been released (long-term and phased, not dumped back in the mythical “community”). I assume the authorities did consider them a threat for some reason. If only they took this kind of cautionary approach with religious extremists. As Rod Liddle has argued wanting to kill people in the name of your religion Is a form of mental illness requiring imprisonment until cured (unlikely).

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