|Counting down the days|
One of the time-honoured rituals in prison is watching fellow prisoners religiously marking off the days to their release on calendars. Some perform elaborate feats of mental arithmetic as to the exact proportion of their sentence that has been served. Yet as the actual day for discharge gets nearer, many ‘get the fear’ – fear and anxiety about where they will be going once they get kicked out of the main gate on the morning in question.
It is a scene familiar from countless films: the prison gate swings open and a newly released con emerges blinking into the light, carrying a holdall. His glamorous wife, attractive girlfriend or some dodgy ‘business associate’ is waiting for him in a flash car. They speed off in pursuit of some new criminal caper or back home for a jolly knees-up with family and friends. Of course, in real life, things are usually very different.
|All his worldly goods?|
A very substantial proportion of ex-prisoners will be facing uncertainty about where they will be going to sleep that night. Although a few may have saved some money while they were inside, the majority will have a £46 cash discharge grant and a rail warrant or a few extra pounds to buy a travel card.
For some, what they have in the black prison-issue nylon holdall over their shoulder will be their entire worldly possessions. I think pretty much anyone would be daunted by such a prospect, particularly if they have spent a while “away” – as imprisonment is often euphemistically described.
We have recently had an insight in these problems in the latest report on HMP Wormwood Scrubs issued this week by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). It all makes for very grim reading, but let’s just look at the Scrubs’ record on resettlement. According to the inspectors, just 10 percent of prisoners had received any assistance ahead of release, while over 20 percent had been released during the previous three months without a suitable address to go to – probably given no more than the phone number and address of the nearest homeless shelter, if they were lucky.
A major part of the problem is that successive budget cuts have forced most prisons to close their resettlement and housing offices. These units were staffed by an officer whose role was to ensure that all cons coming up for release had some plan for their resettlement. Each inmate was supposed to be interviewed ahead of release and given information about benefits, housing options and other key issues.
Some prisons also offered pre-release courses, particularly aimed at prisoners who have served a substantial time inside. These covered various aspects of resettlement back into the community, from writing CVs to apply for work right through to how to register to vote and even employment rights and obligations, including the often complex rules on disclosure of criminal records. Unfortunately, as the HMIP report quoted above reveals, much of that work appears to have disappeared, almost certainly due to cuts in the number of staff.
Of course, some resettlement officers did much more than others. I’ve known very committed resettlement screws who have made real efforts by phoning around local emergency shelters or charities to try to find individual cons accommodation, particularly those who were deemed to be vulnerable or at risk. Those inmates who are required to live in approved premises (hostels) immediately after release on licence at least know they will have a roof over their heads for a while. Many others are not so lucky.
Traditionally, prisoners who have been serving short sentences are usually the most neglected. Until recently, if you had a custodial sentence of less then 12 months, there was no Probation supervision on release at the halfway point. Now, following the highly controversial ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (TR) reform launched by the government, all ex-prisoners are supposed to be supervised until the end of their sentences by either the new National Probation Service (if they are deemed to be at high risk of serious harm should they reoffend) or the 21 new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).
|In and out of the revolving door|
According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) TR is supposed to provide what is called a nationwide “through the prison gate” resettlement service. In theory, all prisoners being released are supposed to be met at the prison gate and mentored throughout their period on licence. Whether this will all come to pass is open to question, not least because of the current chaos across the criminal justice system. There appear to be many important questions going unanswered.
This is not the place to get into a detailed dissection of what remains a highly controversial initiative. Readers who want to explore the widespread concerns over the privatisation of the supervision of low to medium risk ex-prisoners can find much insightful and interesting information and opinion on the excellent On Probation Blog.
My particular interest is in the current crisis within the Prison Service and its ongoing failure to prepare cons for release. I’ve seen lads trudge reluctantly down to the main gate carrying their earthly possessions with them without any idea of where they are going beyond the local station. Life on the out, with no family or friends willing to offer support, can be a terrifying and miserable prospect for some soon to be ex-prisoners.
|Home from home - again|
I’m also sure every former prisoner can tell stories of fellow cons who have made it clear that they will commit further offences – even if only of the ‘knock off a copper’s helmet’ type of thing – in order to get sent back to prison. Often, they plan to spend their £46 discharged grant on a big meal of fast food and a supermarket carrier bag full of cheap alcohol to be consumed before they merrily lob a brick through a shop window or commit some other daft, pointless criminal act with the sole intention of getting arrested and then sent back to the nick.
Each prison wing has a cohort of men who are thoroughly institutionalised and really have nothing waiting for them beyond the horizon of the nick. Inside, they fit in with the regime, find a job to keep themselves busy and earn a few pounds to buy burn (rolling tobacco), get a warm bed, a hot shower and three meals a day. For these lads, prison has become their home. Many were previously in care as children, then in Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) so an adult jail is seen as a form of logical progression through the ‘care’ and criminal justice systems. Release comes to be seen as an unwelcome disruption to what has become a stable, predictable way of life. The streets outside are far more of a threat.
I even recall one prisoner who was so reluctant to be released with nowhere to go and no prospects, that he bought a small tent and pitched it on some waste ground close to the wall of the prison from which he had just been released – as close to ‘home’ as he could possibly get without actually being inside. I gather that he lived there for some time - maybe he still is.
What is clearly missing is a joined-up approach to rehabilitation and resettlement. Moreover, the courts often contribute to this culture of failure by using short sentences of imprisonment to warehouse people who have a wide range of personal problems that are simply not being addressed in the community. It’s little more than a short-term, irresponsible exercise of judicial authority.
|Is it really?|
Take the recent example of a homeless man in Worcester who has just been sentenced to 16 weeks’ imprisonment for breaching a CRASBO (Criminal Anti-Social Behaviour Order). Now, I’m sure that this gentleman is probably a nuisance in that local area, but he clearly has a raft of problems that need addressing, including mental health, a lack of accommodation and quite possibly alcohol and other dependencies none of which, I can guarantee, will be addressed during the eight weeks he will be inside. In light of the present staffing situation, I’d be amazed if he even gets a face-to-face interview with a supervisor from the prison Offender Management Unit. In eight weeks’ time he’ll be kicked out of the prison gate and told to be on his way. The rest writes itself.
A spokesperson for West Mercia Police – who brought the case for the CRASBO breach – commented: “It is hoped that the time away will help him to reflect and look to turn his life around.” Who are they really kidding? And it’s you and me, as taxpayers, who are footing the bill for this expensive failure of imagination, compassion and common sense.