Photo by Toby Wong on Unsplash

Back in June 2015, my colleague Ant and I went up to a city in the north-west of England to find a man who had been referred to us by another agency. He was in a desperate situation, they said, but they were full: could we help him?

We had agreed to meet ‘W’ at a drop-in run by the local addiction support agency. It would be central and easy to find, I thought. That much was true, but it turned out not to be such a great venue for the meeting. The clients assumed we were cops. The atmosphere was icy for a while. We eventually found W. lurking under a fire-escape in the carpark at the back, keeping a low profile, smoking a roll-up.

We decamped to an ASDA with a café a hundred yards up the road; not a brilliant venue for a confidential interview either, but a definite improvement. It was empty apart from us, so I spread paperwork out on a table while Ant fixed the coffee and muffins.

W. had been out of prison for about a week and looked as if he was just about managing. Because he was deemed ‘vulnerable’, he had been offered a place in a probation hostel. However, on his day of release, he went to his probation appointment to be told that the promised hostel space had been re-allocated. Because he was supposed to be in a probation hostel, his licence required a curfew. His embarrassed probation officer suggested that he purchase a tent with his release grant (prisoners in England and Wales are given the princely sum of £46 on their release to carry them until their benefits kick in). So it was that W. found himself curfewed by probation to a tent in the woods.

While it is not unusual for prisoners to be released either to unsuitable accommodation or to ‘no fixed abode’, this is not supposed to happen, and it was the first time that we had ever heard of probation sanctioning the arrangement. Fortunately, it was June; the days were long and the weather was good.

Since then, with a critical shortage of social housing and effective support (even more so in the South East of England), this has become a familiar release path for people coming out of prison. It is literally the case that some prisoners are presented with a tent and sleeping bag on release because no suitable accommodation exists. This happens with women as well as men (see, for example, Pells, 2016).

Take a moment or two to be angry about that.

Last Friday, the Ministry of Justice issued a press release announcing a pilot project to provide specialised support and accommodation to ‘ex-offenders’ on their release from custody.

Lucy Frazer, Minister for Prisons says:

In the 12 weeks up to their release date, offenders involved in the pilot receive intensive support, targeted to their individual needs, to tackle issues like alcohol and drug dependency. This is in addition to the help all offenders receive from work coaches, probation services and healthcare.

Following release, offenders are given up to 2 years of secure and stable accommodation — funded by their benefits where the local housing market permits — as well as bespoke assistance with employment, education, benefits and family engagement.

The ‘trailblazing’ pilot, costing £6.4 million (funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) is currently operating with selected prisoners released from Leeds, Pentonville and Bristol prisons.

This is welcome news, of course. Any intervention to provide appropriate supported accommodation to men and women coming out of prison has to be a good thing.

But forgive my scepticism.

First, we have been here before. When the government ‘transformed rehabilitation’ a few years ago, part of the brief of the new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) was to work with prisoners to provide focused support in the twelve weeks leading up to release and ‘through the gate’ following their release. That has been patchy at best — where it has happened at all — because it was never funded or staffed properly. It’s hard to imagine that will be different this time.

Second, the reason that there is insufficient supported housing for released prisoners in many parts of the country is that there is insufficient social housing period. This has been a trend for many years, exacerbated under recent Conservative administrations by an obsession with owner-occupancy.

But time will tell. I certainly don’t trust this government on criminal justice policy, and, in the grand scheme of things, how long someone spends in prison is less important to public safety than what happens to them when they get out. But this is a move in the right direction.

After a brief appraisal of W’s situation, we put W in the car and took him back to Walk with us. We could sort out probation later. Four years on, while W. is still in support, he’s working part-time as a member of Walk staff, helping to support other vulnerable men when they are released from prison.

***

Check out my book, Working with Released Prisoners, published by Instant Apostle and available wherever books are sold.

Also, check out my channel on YouTube.