Fears for father trapped in jail for 12 years over stealing a mobile phone after he set himself alight

Exclusive: Horrified family members believe IPP prisoner Thomas White acted in despair as he loses hope of ever being freed

Amy-Clare Martin
Crime Correspondent
Friday 14 June 2024 20:38 BST
IPP prisoner Thomas White with his son Kayden aged just 10 months
IPP prisoner Thomas White with his son Kayden aged just 10 months (Margaret White)

A desperate father who has languished in jail for 12 years under an indefinite jail term imposed after he stole a mobile phone has set himself on fire in prison.

Thomas White, 40, was rushed to hospital after he started the blaze in his cell at HMP Manchester on Thursday. His family said he was assessed by medics for smoke inhalation and injuries to his arm.

His devastated sister – who has been calling for him to be moved to a mental health facility – said the desperate act was an attempt on his own life.

She fears it is only a matter of “days or weeks” before he makes a successful attempt, and that he has lost hope of ever being freed under his IPP (imprisonment for public protection) sentence.

Clara White told The Independent: “Yesterday he set a fire in his cell – not to harm anybody; it’s a suicide attempt. He had done it before a few weeks ago at HMP Garth.

“I fear it’s just a matter of weeks or days now until Thomas is successful in taking his own life.”

She called for him to be moved urgently to a hospital setting where he can be treated for severe mental health problems, adding: “They have been warned. I don’t know how many times we have warned them about my brother’s serious mental health.”

IPP sentences – under which offenders were given a minimum jail term but no maximum – were scrapped in 2012 amid human rights concerns, but the abolition of the policy did not affect those already sentenced, leaving thousands trapped in jail for years beyond their original prison terms.

Thomas White with his sister, Clara, and his mother, Margaret, in Manchester in 1985
Thomas White with his sister, Clara, and his mother, Margaret, in Manchester in 1985 (White family)

Thomas, who had previous convictions for theft, was handed an IPP sentence with a two-year tariff for robbery just four months before the sentences were outlawed. Then aged 27, he had been binge-drinking when he took the phone from two Christian missionaries in Manchester.

But thanks to the indefinite jail term, he is still in prison more than 12 years later – aged 40 – with little hope of release as he battles paranoid schizophrenia.

The Independent revealed last month that Thomas had been moved to a different prison for the 12th time in 12 years as he struggles with an endless “prison merry-go-round”.

The tragic update also comes only a matter of weeks after Thomas was finally reunited with his son Kayden, 14, who had been banned from visiting his father in prison for more than a decade.

The reunion was arranged after an intervention by David Blunkett, the architect of the IPP sentence, who admits he regrets introducing the tariff under New Labour in 2005.

Clara said Thomas had been misdiagnosed and treated for borderline personality disorder for years in prison before the family commissioned an independent psychiatrist in 2023, who diagnosed his schizophrenia and linked his declining mental health to the hopelessness of his IPP sentence.

Now back in the same prison where he first started his jail term 12 years ago, HMP Manchester – also known as Strangeways – he is locked up for 23 hours a day.

Clara added: “It’s just desperation, isn’t it. Strangeways is a rat-infested old Victorian prison; he’s locked up 23 hours a day with no TV, because he’s on basic. So he’s got nothing to occupy his time.”

Clara White turned to David Blunkett for help in the fight for Kayden to visit his father, IPP prisoner Thomas White
Clara White turned to David Blunkett for help in the fight for Kayden to visit his father, IPP prisoner Thomas White (White family)

In an emotional phone call yesterday after doctors had checked his lungs for smoke damage, Clara said her brother sounded “very low” and “mentally unwell”. “I don’t think he will hold on much longer,” she added.

The Independent has called for an immediate review of the sentences of almost 3,000 IPP prisoners who, like Thomas, are still languishing in prison – 708 of whom have served prison terms more than 10 years longer than their original sentence.

Almost 90 IPP prisoners have died by suicide, as families and campaigners issue calls for a resentencing exercise.

The president of the Prison Governors’ Association, Tom Wheatley, has branded IPP sentences “a blot on our legal system”, while politicians, including former chair of the justice committee Sir Bob Neill, have led calls for prisoners to be resentenced.

Although recent reforms passed under the Victims and Prisoners Bill will reduce the IPP licence period from 10 years to three for offenders in the community, they will do little to help those who have never been released.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Staff responded quickly to a small cell fire yesterday. An offender was taken to hospital as a precaution and has since been discharged and returned to prison.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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