Thursday, 21 August 2014

Perils and Pitfalls of Life After Prison

Many people assume that prisoners look forward to their day of release like a kid anticipating Christmas or their birthday. Of course some do, but many don’t because of institutionalisation, fear of the unknown or anxiety about the struggle to survive outside the gates. And then there is the impact of release on prisoners’ families.

I was motivated to write this blog post by a couple of comments made by family members of prisoners who have had first-hand experience of a return from prison. Some of these observations have been contributed to the excellent Prisoners Families Voices website, including a recent letter entitled The Strain of Prison Release. It is often easy to overlook the impact that the return of an ex-prisoner – particularly after serving a lengthy custodial sentence – can have upon his or her family.

Prison life regiments and institutionalises. To some extent it has to, otherwise the daily regime wouldn’t work. In each establishment hundreds of cons have to be managed, fed, escorted to and from activities, counted, unlocked and locked up again and the only way this can be achieved, particularly given the decreasing number of wing staff, is through strict regimentation. However, one consequence of this highly inflexible regime is that prisoners quickly start to lose initiative and eventually can become institutionalised. The longer the stretch being served, the more likely it is that this will happen.

Any nick is a strange place in which to live. Originality of thought and action is strongly discouraged. Acts of altruism, such as lending an item to a friend, are breaches of the Prison Rules. ‘Normal’ human interaction and social relationships are changed in ways that are both subtle and overt. I can only write from first-hand experience about adult male prisons. Perhaps things are different in establishments for females, although I suspect that the risks of institutionalisation remain very similar, especially during long sentences.

On the other side of the gate
Many prisoners who are approaching release have - quite literally - no idea of where they are going once they walk through the gate. Almost all high-risk inmates will probably be required to live in approved premises (hostels), at least initially, as part of their licence conditions, but for many lower risk cons their first night out of the slammer could well be spent on a bench in the local park, a shop doorway or a bed in Salvation Army night shelter. Release in the depths of winter is particularly dreaded. It’s easy to see why the prospect of freedom can be overshadowed by fear and anxiety for ex-prisoners who have no family ties or support in the community.

However, plenty of other prisoners do have family homes to which they will be returning. The stereotypical view is that their families will be eagerly awaiting the release date and will be outside the prison gate to whisk their loved one off home for a celebration. If only that were true in all cases.

Of course, some ex-cons are fortunate in that they do have strong support networks made up of family and friends, as well as former workmates. Their return home is often a cause for happiness and catching up with their partners, kids, siblings and parents. Others, however, will be returning to a whole world of relationship problems, stress, depression and pain. The success or failure of their resettlement can often depend on what happens during this adjustment period immediately after release from custody. 

For families, the anxiety can be overwhelming. Some, having struggled financially while their loved one was incarcerated, will face the prospect of an extra mouth to feed at a time when payment of benefits may be delayed and employment prospects for people with criminal records of any kind are bleak. The £46 discharge grant given to adult prisoners as they leave the prison gate isn’t likely to make much impact on the family budget. This, in itself, can lead to feelings of guilt. I know of specific cases where ex-prisoners have returned to crime, such as burglary or shop-lifting, so they can make some sort of ‘contribution’ to the family finances.

Not always easy to sort it all out
For ex-prisoners who have learning difficulties or literacy problems, there can be the nightmare of trying to register for benefits at the local JobCentre – now mostly done online and a potential challenge to people not familiar with computers or who cannot read. Getting it wrong or not having the correct information to hand can result in lengthy delays in receiving any money, as well as possibly impacting on the continued payment of existing family benefits. The financial implications of an ex-prisoner coming home shouldn’t be underestimated.

I recently spoke to one lad who was discharged from prison in May. Because of complex paperwork and a missing document from his last prison, he has yet to receive a single penny in benefits and is completely reliant on his family for food. That doesn’t make his home circumstances any easier and to be honest I’m quite impressed that, so far, he hasn’t drifted back into crime. Maybe his rehabilitation is going better than anyone expected.

Then there are the psychological adjustments that will be required. A relationship that was in trouble before a person was sent to prison is unlikely to have improved while they have been away, assuming it has even survived at all. Even very strong relationships can come under severe strain because of the difficulties some ex-cons will experience when trying to reintegrate back into a very different type of environment to a prison wing. It would be interesting to know whether there are any figures available on relationship breakdowns shortly after release of a partner from prison. Just based on the anecdotal experiences of friends I made in prison, I suspect that the numbers may be depressingly high.

The jangle of keys on every wing
There are also practical issues to deal with. An inmate who has spent years living in a single cell may find it difficult to sleep in the same room or bed as their partner. Some end up kipping on the sofa or in a spare room. Other ex-prisoners may not be able to cope with the lack of noise in the average family home. Prison wings are often very noisy places: shouting, banging of doors, cell call bells buzzing, jangling of screws’ key-chains, clicking of inspection flaps in cell doors. Readjustment to a much quieter environment can take time. 

Using domestic appliances, mobile phones, computers – even handling keys or kitchen knives – after a long custodial sentence can take time to re-learn and may require patience and tact on the part of those around ex-cons who are back in the community. Prison life is so constrained and dominated by rules and regulations – some seemingly very petty to outsiders – that returning to a ‘normal’ existence at home doesn’t always come naturally.

And then there is the issue of traumas experienced in prison with which many ex-cons and their families will have to deal. Some newly released prisoners may want to talk about prison all the time, others don’t want to think about it at all, and this can extend to answering questions from curious friends and family. If someone has been assaulted while in jail – physically, sexually or psychologically – this can have a significant impact on his or her personality and mental health. Family members may notice marked differences in behaviour and attitudes without fully understanding why the former prisoner has changed. 

Not so easy to talk about
Some will not be willing or able to even start sharing information about these negative or painful experiences. Prison can be a violent and sometimes brutal environment. Bad things do happen. It’s never easy for someone who has been the victim of a serious assault or bullying inside prison (or outside, for that matter) to disclose what they’ve been through to those close to them. Anything that has involved sexual violence is likely to be particularly traumatic to cope with.   

Family members also face a range of challenges. If an older child has taken responsibilities in the absence of a parent who has been in prison, they may suddenly feel resentful and threatened by the reappearance of someone who may expect to be respected – and obeyed. Partners who have had to make difficult decisions on their own may now risk losing a degree of autonomy and freedom. The period immediately after release can be a complex process of people getting acquainted again and of negotiating delicate family politics.

Relationships within extended families may also have changed while someone was away in prison. In-laws may prove hostile, judgemental or be reluctant to welcome the ex-con back into the wider family circle. This can cause deep divisions and tensions within some families and can lead to estrangement and bitterness. No resettlement courses in prison – assuming any are now still being offered – can prepare a prisoner for this moral and social maze. 

Moreover, nothing is likely to be on offer for their family beyond a quick home visit from the local probation office. For me, this is one of the major failures of the rehabilitation process. Getting it wrong at the family level can mean a complete failure of any release plan, including breaches of licence conditions resulting in a potential recall to prison.

It can be much easier after ROTL
That is why home resettlement leave on temporary licence (ROTL) is so vital. It offers an opportunity for the prisoner who is approaching release – usually in the final months of his or her sentence – to leave the prison and go back home (or at least to a hostel in the area into which they will eventually be returning) for a few days of relative ‘normality’. They get the chance to start the long process of readjustment before they are finally discharged from custody. 

Personally, I found that the six periods of ROR (Resettlement Overnight Release) I had before my own release from prison earlier this year played a major role in reducing the anxiety and stresses, both for me and my family. I returned home for four nights every 28 days during the six months before I left prison and this gave me the opportunity to reconnect with my family, to discuss practical matters and for us do some planning for the future. 

Based on my own experience, I believe that rather than being regarded as a luxury or some kind of reward for good behaviour, any inmate who is going to be released after serving a lengthy sentence should be granted periods of ROR as a standard part of their preparation for release. In fact, I would go further and recommend that it should even be a clear objective in pretty much every sentence plan, especially for prisoners who are going to be released from closed prisons. 

Happy to be leaving?
Unfortunately, at the moment it appears that only those inmates who are already at D-cats (open prisons) are being granted ROR. The Ministry of Justice also seems determined to make the granting of ROTL much more difficult across the board following a relatively small number of cases where cons have failed to return to prison as agreed or where further offences have been committed. 

Like so much of the nonsense that passes as penal policy in Grayling World, reducing access to ROTL will not reduce the future risk of re-offending, nor will it do anything to improve the prospects of ex-prisoners reintegrating successfully back into their families or local communities. It is, in my opinion, simply setting many ex-offenders up for failure.

Moreover, where prisoners are expecting to return to their family home (whether that be to live with a partner, parents, children, siblings or other extended family members) it should be seen as essential to offer support to those who will be expected to live with them, both before and immediately after they have been released. As is clear from the contributions on the Prisoners Families Voices website, some writers feel that they’ve had no support or advice and feel great anxiety about the imminent release from prison of a family member.

Developing a comprehensive approach to resettlement before and after an inmate leaves prison - including an integrated strategy dealing with benefits - that would fully involve the soon-to-be ex-prisoner’s family would be a major step in the right direction. An approach that would focus on setting ex-offenders up for successful reintegration, rather than for failure and recall to prison. Now that really would be a ‘rehabilitation revolution’.


  1. Very interesting, please keep the blog going.

  2. Thanks for your comment and encouragement. I'll continue to post new material as long as people find it interesting and helpful! Thanks for reading!

  3. Thanks Alex for another great post.

    Resettlement is a real issue – long periods of incarceration followed by a door being opened then the proverbial boot up the backside still happens. I’ve met guys inside who have been in for so long they haven’t even seen a mobile phone, laptop, microwave oven, DVD player, and some even a VCR.

    You touched on a point that I found very close to my heart – keys. Not so much the use of keys but the use of an open door. I only spent just short of 18 months inside but it has a weird effect. Once released, I found myself stood by an unlocked door waiting for somebody to open it. Inside you never go through a door without it having being unlocked immediately beforehand. I don’t consider myself to be institutionalised but little things like that make me think I was getting close. ROTL is essential to resettlement. It has to happen, especially for longer serving inmates. There is no way they can be expected to live in the surroundings they’re in and immediately leave and be “normal”.

    Back when “Community Care Grants” were available to soon to be released inmates, where you could get essential cash for clothing, footwear etc. It was permissible to apply for a grant to buy a tent and other camping equipment – your new abode! This was seen as normal. Leaving such regimented conditions to live in a tent is unthinkable whatever time of year, especially when you expect the individual not to reoffend.

    My release went smoothly. Thanks mostly to my family. Charities outside of MOJ helped enormously, some even working within the prison service. Remarkably MOJ/prison service did absolutely nothing for me when I was to be released. No accommodation, no support, nothing other than a £46 discharge grant for me to survive on for a month before my benefit payments started. I was lucky, I knew the area I was being released into and had family to support me. The door opens and you leave. You may have no idea whether to turn left or right as you leave to get to the train station. Prison staff won’t give you a map!

    A pad mate of mine who was released just a week after me had his own plan. He was in his early twenties, had been orphaned at 12 years old, placed into a children's home, then a YOI and inevitably prison. There was absolutely no plan for him being released. He told me of his own plan. To find the nearest police officer and assault him/her. That would assure him a roof over his head for the night and, hopefully, the same bed he left that very morning. I met him at the gate on the morning of his release and escorted him to the train station. Thankfully the assault never did happen and he’s now living a law-abiding life. But given the situation he was in he really didn’t see another way out other than return to prison, quickly. The only assistance he had that morning was from me, a former inmate, who could see his plight. The authorities abandoned him but no doubt the individuals releasing him could see what might happen.

    1. Thanks for your excellent contribution based on your own experiences of life after prison. Hopefully other readers will find these first-hand accounts informative about the real situation facing ex-prisoners returning back into the community.

      Support from family and friends can be absolutely essential and I really feel for those guys - like the lad you refer to in your last paragraph - who are basically going out to nothing and nobody. He was very fortunate that you were willing to put yourself out to help him when no-one else lifted a finger. So much for probation and other agencies.

      I can only imagine that boost of confidence that he must have felt when he saw you waiting for him outside the prison gate as he was released. Just seeing a face he knew - even a mate from prison - may well have diverted this lad from committing further offences so he would get sent back inside where he would be in his comfort zone.

      Your actions almost certainly gave him the confidence to at least try to make a go of it as a free man, rather than return to prison as yet another statistic of institutional failure. it's also great to hear that he's keeping out of trouble. That's what peer mentoring between prisoners is really about and we need much more of it. Brilliant result and I take my hat off to you, mate!

  4. I’ve seen this happen in my life many times. The prisoner in some jails gets no training or skills they can use on the outside, so they become scared and simply want things to return where they think they had some normalcy. They simply commit a new crime just to go back with friends and where things make sense to them.

  5. Thanks Alex for that brilliant piece. I am a final year university student about to start a dissertation on the Impact of Release on Offenders and their Family in relation to housing, employment and their general health. Even though it is not an academic report but it has given me a good insight about life after the prison gates. Cheers mate keep writing.