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Getting resettlement right

Russell Webster asks why we find it so difficult to give prison leavers a decent shot at going straight on release

One of the problems with our prison system at the moment is that we don’t seem to be able to get the basics right. Prison inspectors’ reports make it clear that not only are most establishments struggling with spiralling violence and easy access to drugs, but very many are unable to keep cells and landings clean and in a decent state of repair and often can’t provide prisoners with regular clean clothes and a shower.

There’s a similar problem with resettlement work. Readers will be well aware of the failings of the new Community Rehabilitation Companies to offer good quality through-the-gate work to prepare prisoners for release and support them once back in the community. Not only are prison leavers not properly supported but they face a number of practical challenges in accessing such basic human needs as housing and money for food.

Nacro, the social justice charity, has recently highlighted a number of practical problems with resettlement work that really should have been resolved decades ago. I want to discuss two issues in particular.

The first is the simple problem that many prisoners do not have any form of valid identification on release. This creates a whole host of difficulties. Without proper ID, people can’t make benefit claims and they are often turned down for housing (even if they can find accommodation). It makes finding a job difficult too; many pre-employment checks require people to be able to verify their address and prove their right to work in the UK.

If people do find a job, they often lack the ID needed to open a bank account and get paid.

This is not an occasional problem but one faced by very many people leaving prison. Some will have been street homeless, others may have been evicted and their possessions disposed of. Still more may simply have been in the grip of a chaotic lifestyle and not have parents or other family members to look after birth certificates, passports et cetera. My sons are in their early 20s and still rely on me to tell them their National Insurance number or that their car tax is due.

Lack of proper ID on release is an issue that has been well known to probation staff and voluntary sector organisations working with offenders for very many years, yet it remains as big a problem as ever. Lack of ID compounds many other problems; we already know that Universal Credit is poorly administered and is structured so as to create a substantial waiting period before benefit is paid. In theory, prisoners can sometimes apply for an advance benefit payments before release to maximise their chances of going straight. Needless to say, you can’t apply without ID. Anyone in this situation knows that it is a fully-fledged, catch-22 situation – the bottom line is that you need ID to get ID.

The second problem, also well known to justice practitioners, is the difficulty faced by people who are released from prison on a Friday. Recent statistics show that this applies to more than a third of custody leavers for the simple fact that anyone whose last day of their prison sentence comes on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday (or Bank Holiday Monday) is released on Friday – it is quite simply (and quite properly) illegal for prisons to hold people past their release date.

The consequence of so many prisons been released on Friday means that probation officers, local housing authorities, other accommodation providers, Jobcentre Plus offices, drug and alcohol treatment providers etc. etc. just can’t cope with the demand.

Things have got worse recently with many prisoners not being released first thing in the morning, but late in the day. Due to performance indicators, prisons now prioritise getting prisoners to court on time rather than preparing people due for release. If you don’t get released until lunchtime and you have a large distance to travel, by the time you get home many services are on the point of closing. Instead of release being a joyful event, many released prisoners are immediately faced with difficult and stressful choices – should I report to my probation officer, try to find a roof for the night or go to the drug agency to make sure that my methadone prescription can continue?

I defy any reader to prioritise those three tasks in a way that makes sense – even Sophie only had to choose between two of her children.

The frustrating thing about this situation is that neither these issues require much time or money to resolve. So why can’t the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service sort them out?

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