Leaving an institution like prison should be a moment of hope and opportunity. The first steps on a new road. But what happens to those who are prevented from even taking those first steps?
Last year, as part of our work showcasing the value of the voluntary sector in the prison system, my colleague Grace and I visited and spoke to people working in prisons all over the country. But my strongest memory from that research wasn’t even within the prison walls.
This particular prison was modern and spacious. Our guide, a manager at a charity that worked inside, told us how much better inmates respond to courses in an environment like this, compared to some of the decrepit Victorian buildings still shamefully used as prisons.
When leaving, we had to go through an underpass to the train station. Approaching it, we realised the whole underpass was littered with paper, a thin blanket of A4 which had been ploughed off both sides of the path.
“Those are release papers,” our guide explained. “Many people are released from prison on a Friday. Often, housing and other services are already booked up or closed for the weekend. If no one meets you at the prison gates, you don’t have anywhere to go until Monday.”
“Guys will sleep rough here for the night, and often lose their papers when they move on. Without those, it’s far more difficult to secure housing, employment or benefit support.” Those papers littering the underpass often determine the future of someone leaving prison.
In 2018, more than a third of custody leavers were released on Fridays. Nearly 35% of people leaving prison had no settled accommodation to go. And the Discharge Grant of £46 (given to all prisoners upon release) has not increased since 1995 – halving its value in real terms.
What do these stats mean in practice? The experience of the people sleeping out in the underpass is not an isolated one. A significant number of people face surviving the weekend – when most support services are closed – with just £46 in their pocket. This is barely enough to cover a single night’s accommodation. Shockingly, sleeping rough is sufficiently common that some prisons have been known to ‘prepare’ people by providing tents and sleeping bags on release.
We already know that there are close connections between homelessness and the criminal justice system. But there has been little attention paid by previous governments to how these problems are interrelated. As this new government takes office, we are going to be investigating the systemic issues facing homeless people in the criminal justice system. If you’re interested in getting involved, let us know.
The latest piece of research in our Beyond Bars program shows that while funders may be worried about the situation in prisons they can fund charities who still have a significant impact and they should not be dissuaded or leave the sector.
Homelessness is a problem which has grown massively in the last decade. It is a complex issue that goes far beyond rough sleeping. Here we set homelessness in it's correct context, as a problem caused by systemic factors such as poverty, and suggest ways philanthropists can help.