Martin Myers tried and failed to steal a cigarette. Why has he spent 18 years in prison for it?

<span>‘I just want to go home’ … Martin Myers. </span><span>Illustration: Yann Kebbi/The Guardian</span>
‘I just want to go home’ … Martin Myers. Illustration: Yann Kebbi/The Guardian

In 2006, Martin Myers got in a scrape over a cigarette. He asked a young man if he had a spare fag. The man declined to give him one. Myers came from a well-known Traveller family. The man, Myers says, made a derogatory comment about Travellers, so Myers gave up the niceties. He threatened to punch him if he didn’t hand him a cigarette.

The young man ran away. He then went to the police in Luton and told them what had happened. The police were familiar with Myers. He had previous convictions for dangerous driving, assault, theft and burglary. Myers was arrested, charged and convicted of attempted street robbery. On 8 March 2006, he was given a tariff – the minimum time he could serve – of 19 months and 27 days.

Myers, 42, has now served 18 years in jail for the attempted robbery of that cigarette. He was given an indeterminate sentence, known as imprisonment for public protection (IPP). This meant that while he could be released after 19 months and 27 days, he could also be jailed for up to 99 years. IPP was first used as a sentence in England and Wales in 2005, having been introduced by Labour in 2003 to detain in prison people who posed a significant risk of causing harm to the public. It was a controversial sentence. Critics said that jailing people for what they could do, rather than what they had done, contradicted the basic principle of justice: that people are innocent until proven guilty.

In September 2012, the European court of human rights ruled that detaining individuals serving IPPs beyond their tariff indefinitely “was arbitrary and therefore unlawful” if reasonable access to rehabilitation was not provided. On 3 December 2012, IPP was abolished. But while the sentence could no longer be handed out by judges, it wasn’t abolished for those already serving it. Last week, David Blunkett, who introduced the sentence as home secretary, told me: “What has happened with this sentence is the biggest regret I have in terms of the outcome of all the many things that I was involved in in the eight years I was in government.”

Today, more than 11 years after IPPs were banned and 16 years after his tariff ended, Myers is one of almost 3,000 people imprisoned in England and Wales still serving an indeterminate sentence – with no release date in sight.


Myers’ mum, Mary, tells me I won’t be able to miss her house: “There’s a big caravan in the garden and we’ve got a black door.” She is the personification of a matriarch – the mother of 14 children, she has tried to hold the family together as best as possible for more than half a century. Despite living in England most of her life, she has retained a strong Irish accent and speaks with a gravelly smoker’s rasp. She wears a grey dressing gown with diamante studs over a grey jumper, which also has diamante studs. She has a magnificent presence – tough, loving and loyal. If you were one of hers, she would always be there for you. Just as she has been for Myers.

She shows me a photographs of two cute boys with dark brown eyes: “That’s Martin with his twin brother. Patrick lives in London. He’s doing OK.” Myers, however, is doing anything but OK.

Like so many IPP prisoners, Myers has a history of self-harming in jail. IPP prisoners are more likely than any other sentenced group in the prison population to seriously self-harm. “He’ll never be able to wear shorts or vests now,” Mary says. In prison, Myers injured his hands so badly that he needed a five-hour operation. His legs are so damaged that he was told an operation could just make things worse. He has tried to take his own life twice while serving the IPP sentence. “I’m very worried, love,” Mary says. “Very, very worried that he’s going to kill himself in that place.” Ninety IPP prisoners have done so.

Did she always worry for Myers? “God, no!” she says. He was fun, independent-minded and had a zest for life. “He was a happy boy. He’s a good singer, but a great dancer. He liked reggae music. He was a little bit wild. He’d do things that other kids wouldn’t do. Martin would do anything, love. In the evening, they’d make a ramp and they’d drive their bikes up in the air and over to the other side. And they’d make a swing over a river. He was a daredevil. They’d light a big fire outside in the evening and play around it.”

Where he get his wildness from? She smiles. “Probably me, love. I was always wild when I was young. I worked on the land. I cut trees down still.” Mary is in her late 70s.

The family moved around Britain in two caravans – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Wales, Scotland. The older children slept in the smaller one, while the younger kids slept with Mary and their father in the big one. Mary admits she had little time for conventional schooling. The family were always on the move, so it was impossible for the children to settle down early on.

Thirty years ago, they moved to Luton, when Mary’s husband was suffering with his lungs and struggling to work, gardening and in a scrapyard. “So we tried to settle down.” But, she says, there was so much discrimination against Travellers – from neighbours, strangers, schools and the police. “The police gave us a lot of trouble when we came in here, an awful lot of trouble. Then they laid off for a while. But it started again.”

She says the school victimised Traveller children. Myers was one of a number of her kids who were permanently excluded without having learned to read or write. Mary, who is also illiterate, has a great way with words. She is here with her friend Ann McMaster, a support worker who is helping her to fight for the release of Myers. “Martin was around 11 the last time he went to school. I think the kids were treated unfairly. The other kids used to call them names,” Mary says. “D’you mind if I smoke a cigarette, love? D’you mind, Ann?” She looks at her and laughs. “You’re used to it. The kids were called ‘pikey’ and treated like the scum of the earth.”

Sometimes he says: ‘Mother, should I be in prison?’ And I say: ‘No, baby, you shouldn’t be in prison, we’ll do everything we can to get you out’

Mary Myers

As they weren’t in school, Myers and Patrick worked with their father. “At the age of nine or 10, they used to drive lorries and cars. They’d drive to go for water and stuff,” Mary says. “They had great fun. We were as free as birds. We didn’t worry about big bills, we just worried about the police coming to move us on.”

At 18, Myers got married. By the time he was imprisoned on the IPP sentence, he had two children. Mary says being a father changed him, calmed him down. “He was a good dad. The kids were everything to him. He stopped being a daredevil.”

She knows Myers was wrong to threaten the young man over the cigarette. The first time he went to the police station, he said Myers had threatened him when he refused to give him a cigarette. He then returned to the police, this time adding that Myers had threatened him with a knife. “He said he’d seen Martin with a little spud knife. Well, Martin never carried a knife,” Mary says.

From prison, Myers tells me it’s true that he threatened the young man, but he insists talk of a knife is nonsense. “I got into a bit of an argument when he asked whether I was a Traveller. I grabbed his hand and said: ‘Give me a cigarette or I’ll knock you out.’ I did say that, I admit that. He went there and wrote a statement that night and then he goes back to the police station the next day. The second statement is the same as the first statement, except it has one thing different; he said I had a knife up my sleeve. I never, Simon. I never had a knife.”


Knife or no knife, it’s hard to believe that Myers is in his 19th year of an indeterminate sentence for attempting to steal a cigarette. He tries to keep positive for his mother’s sake, but it’s a challenge that is often beyond him. His father, a brother and a sister have all died while he has been inside and he wasn’t allowed to attend their funerals. Myers claims that prison officers have told him this is because they don’t like attending “Gypsy funerals”. His greatest fear is that Mary will die while he is in prison. Mary’s greatest fear is that he will kill himself in prison.

Myers is one of many young men who were handed indeterminate sentences with short tariffs. According to government data, 99% of IPP prisoners are male and more than one-third of IPPs were given to less serious offenders, jailed on a tariff of two years or fewer. Wayne Bell was given a two-year tariff when he was 17 for punching another youth and stealing his bike. He has now served 17 years in jail. Lawrence Owen was 17 when he set fire to his home to try to kill himself after losing three members of his family to cancer in a period of months. He then phoned the police to admit what he had done. Owen was given a tariff of two years and served 13 years. Kelvin Speakman, who spent his childhood in and out of care homes and had mental health and addiction problems, was given a two-year tariff for arson in 2007. He killed himself in segregation nine years later. He was 30.

Myers has been refused parole numerous times. He believes this is at least partly down to mistakes made by the Parole Board and the Prison Service. In 2011, he was wrongly accused of being a sex offender in a letter sent by the Parole Board. From then on, he was a marked man. “Because Martin is illiterate, he got his cellmate to read what it said about him and that then went around the prison,” McMaster says. “He was beaten up so badly because of this letter – and the stigma doesn’t go away. It will never go away. It always comes up. If Martin has an argument with someone, they say: you’re a sex offender, you’re a paedophile. He can’t get away from it.” He was hospitalised twice as a result of the assaults.

Myers says the false allegations made his life in prison impossible. “I’ve been spat on, called a nonce, a rapist. And it wasn’t me. When they wrote the letter in 2013, giving the reasons for being knocked back, they put it in there. They said: the reason we’re knocking you back for two years is your drug misuse and your sexually violent offending.”

He made a complaint to the Prison Service in June 2015, after he was attacked by three men because of his supposed sexual offences. Sex offenders are so vulnerable in prisons that they are often kept separately from the rest of the population. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) admitted its mistake and paid Myers £21,000 in compensation. He has been attacked a number of times since, his assailants still smearing him as a sex offender.

Myers has also falsely been accused of taking a hostage at High Down prison. In a letter seen by the Guardian, the head of security and operations at the prison wrote: “This is not something that has happened while Mr Myers has been at High Down,” adding that he could not see “any reason” why it was placed on his file.

Myers says his record is full of false allegations. “I had 178 nickings on my Nomis [National Offender Management Information System].” Myers talks quietly, patiently explaining prison terminology to me. “You know what a nicking is? An adjudication. If you get in trouble in prison, you get placed on report in front of the governor. That’s called adjudication. We call it nickings. And they put 178 adjudications on my Nomis that didn’t belong to me. I’ve also got an apology from probation saying I’d ‘hot-watered’ someone [thrown boiling water on a fellow prisoner’s face] when I didn’t.” In the letter, also seen by the Guardian, the probation officer writes: “I am enclosing a copy of your amended report. I have taken out the part about the adjudication and the hot water. It was my mistake … I AM SORRY.”

Myers happens to phone the IPP campaigner Donna Mooney when I am with her. Her brother Tommy Nicol killed himself in 2015 while serving an IPP sentence. Mooney co-founded the IPP campaigning group Ungripp and is in frequent contact with Myers and other IPP prisoners. Her long-term mission is to get IPP prisoners resentenced. But her more immediate purpose is to ensure that vulnerable prisoners such as Myers retain hope and don’t kill themselves.

Related: Tommy Nicol was kind and friendly – a beloved brother. Why did he die in prison on a ‘99-year’ sentence?

Myers, who is on speakerphone, says the Parole Board letter falsely alleging he was a sex offender caused his marriage fell apart. “The minute they put me down as a sex offender and I got beaten up a few times, my wife looked at me different and I looked at my wife different,” he says. “Every time I had a visit with her, I thought: ‘Does she think I’m a wrong ’un? Does she think I’m a nonce or a rapist?’ Our relationship went downhill from there and we got divorced. I’ve lost my wife, my marriage, my kids and everything because of what they did.” Myers is no longer in touch with his children.

He believes the letter from the Parole Board alleging he was a sex offender was a genuine mistake, but he is not prepared to give the benefit of the doubt over the other allegations made by prison officers. “When they put me down as a sex offender in the letter, that was an accident. But the 178 adjudications, and hot water and hostage-taking, was deliberately done, I think. That was to knock me back for years.”

He is convinced that prison officers exploited his illiteracy to make false allegations. (Data published by the MoJ in 2022 revealed that 57% of adults in prison in the UK have a reading level below that of the average 11-year-old.) “What they’re doing is putting stuff in my parole dossier, knowing I can’t read and write and I can’t get an inmate to read my dossier after what happened with the stuff saying I was a sex offender. They could get me killed.”

The MoJ declined to comment on the false allegation that Myers was a sex offender, the adjudications or the accusations of hostage-taking and hot-watering.

Since 1993, the prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled from 44,246 to 87,869, peaking at more than 88,000 in October 2023. It’s the highest per capita population in western Europe (146 per 100,000), closely followed by Scotland (144 per 100,000), with Portugal a distant third (121 per 100,000).

He’s missing out on so much … I need Martin. He’s the closest thing to my dad. I need him out

Lacey, Myers’ niece

There are two main reasons: more people are being sentenced to immediate custody and people are serving long prison sentences. The length of the average sentence grew from 16 months in 1993 to 20.2 months in 2018. In October 2023, the justice secretary, Alex Chalk, announced plans to reduce the prison population, including early release on licence and the suspension of short sentences.

Yet while our prisons face an overcrowding crisis, the number of prisoners being recalled on IPP sentences without committing further crimes has surged in recent years, accounting for almost three-quarters of IPP returns in 2022. Last September, a freedom of information request by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies found that 461 of 625 IPP offenders recalled in 2022 – 74% – had not been charged with a new offence. The proportion was up significantly on 2015, when the respective figures were 205 and 363 (56%). Of the 2,796 IPP prisoners in jail as of 31 March 2024, more than half (1,616) were recalled to custody.

In October 2023, Myers was finally released on licence. He still doesn’t know what made the difference this time. For prisoners serving regular sentences, it is the Parole Board’s responsibility to prove they remain a threat to the public, but for IPP prisoners it is their responsibility to prove they are not a threat. It can be an impossible ask. As far as Myers was concerned, he’d done nothing different this time to prove he was no longer a danger to the public. Then again, he never thought he had been.

Myers was determined that he would never return to jail. Ten weeks later, he was recalled. Myers had not committed another offence. When Mooney rang me towards the end of last year to tell me he had been recalled to jail for taking Valium, I couldn’t believe it. But it was true.


Back in Luton, Mary goes into the kitchen to make us a hot drink. McMaster talks about the many ways in which she has seen the Myers family discriminated against over the years for being Travellers. McMaster, who used to run the Arc children’s centre in Luton, tells me of the time she tried to help the family when they kept getting turned away from the benefits office. “I rang the manager and said: ‘This keeps happening,’ and he was like: ‘No, I don’t think it does.’

“So I went down there with Mary’s daughter Helen. Helen went first, I stood back, and the lady said: ‘No, I can’t deal with this.’ Then I stepped forward and said: ‘I’ve got a meeting with the manager about this,’ and I said to the manager I blatantly watched it happen. It was terrible. In the end, he did sort her benefits, but that’s unfair. It was just because they’re Travellers.”

Mary returns with tea and biscuits. “You need to put two teabags to make a decent cup these days,” she says. Mary has been listening to the conversation about the prejudices the family has faced. “They just hear your voice. You’ve got a Traveller’s voice, somehow or other. No matter how you do yourself up, you can have diamonds and pearls, as soon as they look at you they know you’re a Traveller. They can pick us out of a million people.”

Like all prisoners who have served a sentence of at least two weeks, Myers was released with £82.39 to aid his resettlement, known as the discharge grant. He says he was released without his regular medication. There was no preparation for his return to the community, no therapy, no mental health support. Even campaigners such as Mooney, who believe IPP prisoners who have served over their tariff should be released into the community, think they first have to be helped to readjust into the outside world.

Mary wanted Myers to live at her home in Luton. She had plenty of room and understood his needs. But Myers was ordered to live in approved premises in a rough part of town. She says he didn’t have a chance. “At the hostel, there was nothing there but drugs, drink and prostitution. He got a punch in the back of the neck. He was asked out to fight and he couldn’t fight.” Myers knew that if he was caught fighting, it would mean an instant recall. “I went down to see the probation officer and they had a psychologist there. I said to them: ‘You put Martin into a place he’s going to fail. You put him in there to fail.’”

He managed to avoid the temptation to take class A drugs (he has had addiction issues in the past). He spent the days walking to and from Mary’s house, spending time with his mother. “When he came out of prison, he knew nothing,” she says. “He didn’t know how to manage his money. Martin gave away all his money to his nephews and nieces – sweets, McDonald’s, £14 for haircuts. He didn’t know how to do nothing. They should have sent him into a rehabilitation place where you learn to live on the outside again, or a proper hostel where somebody’s got control of it.”

After being released, Myers says, he was hounded by the police. On one occasion, officers arrested him and held him in custody for 40 minutes about a stolen car. It turned out the theft had happened while he was still in jail. (Bedfordshire police says it has no record of the arrest.) Myers began to feel there was a conspiracy to have him recalled.

After Mary and Myers complained about the approved premises, he was moved, without warning, to another approved premises – in Northampton, 30 miles away. He was in a terrible state. He didn’t know anyone and he tried desperately to keep away from hard drugs, because he knew taking them would mean a recall. He was riven with anxiety and still unable to get his medication. A fellow resident offered him Valium to ease his symptoms.

“I took three or four,” Myers tells me from jail. “At the hostel, the manager asked me if I was under the influence of anything. I said: ‘Yeah, I took some Valium.’ I went to bed. I woke up. Four policemen and the manager handcuffed me and dragged me back to jail.”

It hit me harder than ever before when I went back to jail, because I thought: ‘How many years now am I going to do?’

Martin Myers

After the resident had given him the Valium, he had offered to sell Myers a batch. “He said: ‘Martin, I’ve got about 60 here, do you want them?’ I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll take them off you, so I can take them every day for a few weeks.’ When I went back up to my room, I hid them up my arse, then when I got returned to jail it came up on the body scan that I had something. I got them out, opened them up and it wasn’t Valium. It was teabags.” He can almost see the funny side. “So, the resident gave me the first few for free and then he sold me teabags!”

He was recalled to prison in October.

The MoJ declined to comment on the approved premises to which Myers was sent, or the reasons for his recall, but it acknowledged that Valium was a factor.

How did he feel when he was told he was being sent back for taking Valium? “I was devastated. I was beating my head against the door of the van. I went on a hunger strike and didn’t eat for two weeks. On my kids’ lives, everything hit me when I went back to jail harder than ever before, because I thought: ‘How many years now am I going to do?’”

I ask Mary how all this has affected her. “Some days, I just don’t want to get out of bed. Some days, I just go upstairs and get the quilt and put it over my head and say: ‘Right, that’s it. Go to sleep.’” Because of Myers? “Yes, because I’m fed up. I think of Martin all the time. I dream of him. Martin is not as strong as the rest of the family. He could kill himself in seconds. Sometimes he says: ‘Mother, should I be in prison?’ And I say: ‘No, baby, you shouldn’t be in prison, we’ll do everything we can to get you out,’ and then his voice gets a bit stronger.”

More than 18 years on, Myers is back where he started – serving an indeterminate sentence for threatening to steal a cigarette. The difference is that he has seen the inside of numerous prisons and it is 12 years since the indeterminate sentence was abolished. His mother says she never will be able to make any sense of IPP: “How can it be right, people going to jail for two years and doing 18 years?”

Myers tells me that, having been recalled, he can’t see any possibility of getting out in the near future. “I think I’ll get another knockback,” he says. But having experienced a taste of freedom, he is not giving up now. “Listen, I’m trying my best. I’ve had no adjudications since I’ve been back in. I’m trying to keep my head down, I’m trying my best and I’m trying to go home. I just want to go home, Simon. That’s all I want – to go home.”


Three weeks after this call with Myers, his twin brother, Patrick, dies of a heart attack at 42. Myers asks for temporary release to go to the funeral, but he believes it is unlikely to be granted. He asks the prison to add my phone number to his list, but it refuses. His niece Bernadette rings me on his behalf to ask if I will be sure to make it clear that he has never been arrested for a sex offence.

A day later, another niece, Lacey, rings. Lacey, who is Patrick’s daughter, is clearly traumatised. She is still in shock about her father’s death, but is terrified for Myers. “He says he’s in a cell with no medication. I’m worried. I don’t know …” She trails off. “It’s as if they want him to die. But he’s got a life and he’s missing out on so much. My dad was such a funny guy. He had a good soul, my dad. It’s so sad. It’s hard. Now, I need Martin. He’s the closest thing to my dad. I need him out.”

The MoJ declined to comment on Myers’ medication. “We have reduced the number of unreleased IPP prisoners by three-quarters since we scrapped the sentence in 2012, with a 12% fall in the last year alone where the Parole Board deemed prisoners safe to release,” it said in a statement. “But public protection will always remain our top priority and the Parole Board must rightly consider a prisoner’s behaviour in jail when deciding whether they are safe to be released.”

Myers manages to get through to me shortly before Patrick’s funeral. He sounds desperate. “What can I do? I’m stuck in jail, no release date, doing a sentence that’s been abolished for 12 years. I don’t think they’ll let me out for Patrick’s funeral. I’m devastated,” he says. “I can’t even say my last goodbye to him.”

As this article went to press, Myers got confirmation: he won’t be permitted to attend his brother’s funeral.

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