UK prison sentences for unspecified periods are a breach of human rights guaranteeing liberty and security, the European Court of Human Rights finds.
The ruling has widespread implications for 6,000 inmates jailed with indeterminate sentences (IPPs) in the UK - seven per cent of the total jail population - which have been generally used to indefinitely detain serious offenders, including some convicted on terrorism offences. Some 3,500 of the 6,000 IPP prisoners have already served time beyond their expected release date with no idea when they will be freed.
Under UK law - since modified by Parliament - prisoners with sentences deemed "indeterminate imprisonment for public protection" (IPP) had to complete courses such as anger management before release to show they were no longer a threat to society. But because of the lack of courses, many IPP prisoners in England and Wales were held longer than necessary resulting in prison overcrowding.
"The large number of IPP prisoners swamped the system in place for dealing with those serving indeterminate sentences," the European judges said in their judgment, adding that it was not the fault of prisoners who could not complete courses that were not available.
"It is clear that the delays were the result of a lack of resources," the European judges said. Housing prisoners without rehabilitation courses is a massive cost to UK taxpayers, however, avaeraging £45,000 a year per prisoner and the overcrowded conditions are expected to remain for six years after a government U-turn on sentencing.
John Podmore, former governor of HMP Brixton, told the Guardian newspaper that the situation horrified him: "We're locking them up not for what they've done, [but] for what they might do in the future".
The inadequate resources "appeared to be the consequence of the introduction of draconian measures for indeterminate detention without the necessary planning and without realistic consideration of the impact of the measures", the judges found.
IPP sentencing came into effect in 2005, but the government later modified the tariffs so indeterminate sentences were no longer mandatory for certain convictions and generally only applied in cases where the sentence imposed would have been more than two years.
The UK parliament recently abolished IPPs, however, and replaced them with a system of longer sentences for some offenders along with extensive supervision and monitoring upon release. It is unclear whether today's ruling will affect the revised system.
The European case was brought by three UK criminals who complained to Strasbourg that their parole boards would not release them because they had not taken rehabilitation courses that were not available.
The boards argued they could not properly assess whether the men were no longer a danger to society because they had not completed the rehabilitation courses.
As a result, the three men were forced to remain in jail, on waiting lists, until the rehabilitation courses were offered.
Brett James, who had a series of convictions for violent crimes, was imprisoned for two years for unlawful wounding with intent and had completed all of the courses available to him in prison. Despite this the board would not release him because Mr James had not completed the courses that were not offered.
Two others, Nicholas Wells and Jeffrey Lee, complained of similar delays but they were all unsuccessful arguing their cases in the UK courts.
"The length of the delays in the applicants' cases was considerable: for around two and a half years, they were simply left in local prisons where there were few, if any, offending behaviour programmes," the judges found.