Prison and homelessness

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Time after time, we see people come out of prison and have nowhere to go. How can we expect people to reintegrate into society when society lets them down?

Every time a person comes to my housing drop-in session who has just come out of prison, it feels like such a direct and undeniable failure of the state. The phrase “I came out of prison last week and have nowhere to go” is one I hear a lot, and it really emphasises the feeling that the system dealing with these people is totally broken.

Considering it is virtually impossible for a person in prison to communicate with people outside to sort out accommodation for themselves, the ‘support’ aimed at helping prisoners resettle and avoid homelessness is extremely limited, if accessed at all. This is extremely frustrating for homeless charities because we know how easily vulnerable people can become entrenched in homelessness, making it much more difficult to get out of when the whole situation should have been avoided in the first place.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 requires prisons and probation providers to refer people who might be at risk of becoming homeless to the local housing authority. In practice, this system does not seem to work. A 2017 review of Through the Gate services which provide resettlement support found that more than one in seven prisoners were released without knowing where they would sleep that night.[1] For those who are given support by prisons, this may be the bare minimum, such as a referral to a homeless night shelter.

Prison services should, at the very least, inform local charities when a prisoner at risk of homelessness is going to be released. We are not provided with a time or date of release, and it is left to the ex-prisoner to find their way to a charity and drop in, often to find we have no appointments or staff available to offer help. If they cannot find help by the end of their day of release, they may well be sleeping outside that night.

Although on the surface it looks like mechanisms are in place to take care of people after release, any further research will show that, for most, they do not work. Charities see the evidence of this all the time, as we pick up the slack of the severely under-funded criminal justice system.

Homelessness and Re-offending

For a country that struggles with massive re-offending rates, the lack of support for those coming out of prison should be taken so much more seriously. Statistics show that prison does not help reduce the risk of re-offending:

“Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending—nearly half of adults (48%) are reconvicted within one year of release.”

The Prison Reform Trust, Prison: The Facts, p14.

The same research found that resettlement teams were leaving work they should have been doing for workers in the community to deal with post-release. Through the Gate services were found not to have provided any prisoners with help to enter education or employment after release. [1]

These problems raise the question of how closely linked post-prison release homelessness and re-offending might be. It is not uncommon for homeless clients to tell me they are considering committing a crime just so that they have somewhere secure to sleep. If they have no help getting into work or meaningful activities, they may feel there is no alternative solution. This article tells the story of an autistic homeless man, aged only 23, whose ASBO banned him from begging and sitting outside shops. On arriving in court following several ‘offences’ of rough sleeping, begging, or ‘loitering’, he asked the judge to give him a prison sentence just for the sake of a simpler life.

There is a wealth of research that supports links between poverty and crime. Those living in poorer areas, where young people’s services and community funding have been cut, may be more likely to fall into criminal activity. Many people we see that have been in prison as an adult have been in trouble with police from a young age. Young offenders institutions are unsafe environments that do not provide the support that can encourage young people to change their lives and contribute to society before they get entrenched in crime. When a client with a history of conviction comes to us aged 50 and they still aren’t receiving the support they need, it seems an inevitable and endless cycle.

How has this Happened?

The Ministry of Justice has suffered 40% funding cuts in recent years.[2] Unlike the NHS, social services, and childcare for example, criminal justice cuts do not gain public attention. As is brilliantly articulated in The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, (2018), most people do not think the criminal justice system will ever affect them. The fact is, it could affect anyone. As far as we are concerned at Bench, it definitely affects the more vulnerable in society. It should not be the job of charities to resettle people on their release. Prison does not rehabilitate offenders as it should. These are people who have not been helped to integrate in society.

When people are spat out of prison and straight onto the street, why on earth would they feel compelled to contribute to the society that refused to help them at their most vulnerable time?

What can I do?

  1. You can write to your MP. The more we show that we take these problems seriously, the more they have to listen. There are things other than Brexit, and MPs desperately need to remember that. For this particular issue, you can use this template and copy it into an email. To find out who your MP is and find their contact details, click here.
  2. Fund local charities or volunteer if you can. OK, we’re biased on this one, but we really do need all the help we can get. You can look for local charities or find out how to support Bench Outreach on our website, here.
  3. Find out more- the more you inform yourself about the issues, the more equipped you are to argue that we need change. If you have access to it, one book referenced in the article, The Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, is a great place to start when it comes to the many failings of the criminal justice system. (They’re not paying us to plug it, I just finished reading it this morning and loved it!)
  4. Spread the word- complain about it to whoever will listen. Share this article. People should know what’s going wrong- you never know who may come up with an answer.

Thanks for reading, do let us know what you think in the comments.

Photo by jplenio

[1] Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, An Inspection of Through the Gate Resettlement Services for Prisoners Serving 12 Months or More, June 2017, p.8.

[2] The Secret Barrister, Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, London: Macmillan, 2018.

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