Sister of IPP prisoner who took his own life calls for urgent action

Tommy Nicol described his indeterminate sentence as ‘psychological torture’ before he died in 2015

The sister of a prisoner who took his own life when being held under a now-abolished sentencing regime has called for urgent action to deal with thousands of inmates still jailed under the widely derided system.

Tommy Nicol was jailed under an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence – a form of indeterminate sentence that he described as the “psychological torture of a person who is doing 99 years”.

He made the comment in a handwritten formal complaint at Erlestoke prison around five years into his IPP sentence for robbery and about nine months before he killed himself.

The horror inflicted by the perceived neverending nature of IPP was acknowledged by the government’s decision to scrap their use in 2011. The scheme was applied far more widely than intended, with some IPP sentences issued to offenders who committed low-level crimes.

But despite the use of the sentencing power being scrapped, nearly 2,600 prisoners still remain locked up under the defunct regime, which saw offenders given a minimum jail tariff but no maximum for a range of crimes.

Since his death in September 2015, his sister Donna Mooney has discovered more about Tommy’s experience in the prison estate than she is sometimes able to bear.

Now she is calling for the remaining IPP prisoners on minimum tariffs of four years or less to be immediately switched to determinate sentences. She wants to meet with the justice secretary, David Gauke, to discuss what happened to her brother. The proportion of the IPP population who have gone beyond their minimum tariff continues to increase – 89% of IPP prisoners were post-tariff as of 30 September.

“In all of this I’m not justifying what he did,” she says at her home in south-west London. “He did something and there should have been consequences for that but he is still a human being.”

She explains that her brother was the eldest of six children – three boys, three girls – and struggled with a “traumatic” childhood.

Tommy Nicol, who took his own life at HMP The Mount
Tommy Nicol, who took his own life at HMP The Mount. Photograph: Donna Mooney/Family Handout

“We had a difficult childhood and I guess consequently he went off the rails a bit,” she says.

Nicol was in and out of young offenders’ institutions and prison from his teenage years – but Mooney always felt as if his emotional and rehabilitative needs were ignored. Of all the six siblings, Nicol remains the only one who ended up in trouble with the law.

“He was very institutionalised,” she says. “Outside of that, he was happy, friendly, a kind person. He would rather have had a family and a job. He just wasn’t able to do that.”

In 2009, he committed his most serious offence – he stole a car from a mechanic’s garage. The owner caught him in the act, a tussle broke out and the man’s arm was injured. Nicol was jailed at St Albans Crown Court in 2009.

“At that point he didn’t really know what an IPP was,” Mooney says. “When he told me I thought, ‘it can’t be true’.”

Nicol started his prison sentence at HMP Rye Hill in Warwickshire. His understanding was that it would benefit his prospects for release to access a therapeutic community, only available in a small number of prisons, and to do this he would need to undergo a psychological assessment. He requested this early on but it never took place.

In 2013, his tariff completed, he received his first knock back from the Parole Board for release – who informed him he should access a therapeutic community. This frustrated him but he persevered and requested a jail transfer. He applied to two therapeutic communities, but was unsuccessful.

In June 2014 he was transferred to HMP Coldingley in Surrey where there were no relevant courses for him to complete. While there he filed a formal complaint that he had been transferred to a prison that could not offer him the relevant mental health support.

It was in Coldingley where serious difficulties began to emerge, but which Mooney says were ignored. Nicol moved himself into solitary confinement – known as the care and separation unit (CSU) – in protest. He spent 48 days alone and went on hunger strike for four days. No mental health support was provided.

In November 2014 he was transferred to Erlestoke prison in Wiltshire, where he made another formal complaint in which he labelled IPP sentences “psychological torture”.

In February 2015, a psychological assessment was conducted that concluded he would benefit from accessing a therapeutic community.

In June 2015, six years into his sentence, he received another knockback from the Parole Board and was told the next review would be in 2017 – eight years after he was jailed on a minimum four-year tariff.

A month later he returned to the CSU where he languished for 80 days. He went on hunger strike for seven days. His behaviour started to become increasingly unusual.

Mooney breaks down in tears as she continues her brother’s story. “That’s for me where you see it really starting to affect him,” she says.

He was transferred once again on 15 September 2015 to HMP The Mount, in Hertfordshire. His behaviour became increasingly erratic. He self-harmed, setting a fire in his cell. He was moved to the CSU in the Mount, where he was observed rocking on his knees, groaning. He wrapped himself in sheets and made a paper plate mask. But no mental health support was provided.

On 19 September 2015 he was moved to an unfurnished cell – the harshest prison environment available – for 24 hours. A video of guards restraining Nicol as they moved him was recently played at his inquest in front of Mooney and other horrified family members.

He was heard chanting and talking to imaginary people while in the cell. “It was awful,” she says. “He was having this mental health episode, and four guys go in and restrain him.”

Donna Mooney
Donna Mooney: ‘He had a complete loss of hope.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Finally, on Monday 21 September 2015, the governor requested mental health support to see Nicol. The mental health team attempted to access him but were denied due to safety concerns on three occasions. After a seven-hour stint in an unfurnished cell he was returned to the CSU and three hours later was found unresponsive.

Four days later he was pronounced dead in Watford general hospital. Despite being unresponsive, he had been held in restraints in his hospital bed. His family were not informed until he had died. He was 37.

“I can just see how much this sentence has impacted him – it’s made my brother take his life,” Mooney says. “He had a complete loss of hope.”

She also believes had Nicol known he had a fixed release date – even if it was longer than the period he ultimately spent in jail – he would still be alive.

Dr Dinesh Maganty, a consultant forensic psychiatrist who gave evidence to the Harris review into deaths in custody, gave evidence at Nicol’s inquest.

Explaining the issues around the impact of the IPP sentence, he said that one crucial element in any self-inflicted death is loss of hope.

“I would hope that if I say something it will stop other families having to go through this – this is traumatising,” Mooney says. “It’s not just the person in prison it affects – it has affected every single one of us.”

• In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at


Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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