Prison

Prison

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Kicked Out of the Prison Gate

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.

The Scrubs
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. 

10 comments:

  1. Whilst some people obviously become institutionalised and I do think that more should be done (by having more staff available) to help those that genuinely need it I also think that once again personal responsibility has to play a part.

    Look at the crazy situation we have with the Benefits system, with multi-generational families never working as the taxpayers support them, there's no need (or incentive) to work and I'm sure there is a percentage of prisoners who upon release simply feel life is 'easier' on the inside.

    The Benefits system is supposed to be a safety net for a short period of time, not a hammock to lie on eternally and some prisoners would be better served by actually trying to improve their lives rather than bleating they're not being given enough help.

    Let's not forget, there are apparently many (legal & illegal) immigrants in this country who with little to no English or understanding of our country manage to make a living, some very successfully, through hard work and determination.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. To be very frank, I used to take a very hard line on all sorts of issues - unemployment, benefits culture etc - prior to being sent to prison. I'd always worked hard in high pressure jobs and had never claimed a penny piece in benefits of any kind. I felt I could afford to be judgemental of others!

      It was only inside prison that I came to realise just how disfunctional other people's lives could be, often starting as young children when terrible or traumatic events engulfed their lives. Kids who've been through the so-called 'care system' - often abused and raped along the way - in many cases never really recover, often because they've never been able to articulate their needs. Without help and treatment, quite a large percentage 'self-medicate' using alcohol and drugs, or other risky behaviours.

      As someone who was severely abused as a kid myself (by an adult whom my parents trusted implicitly), I now think "there but for the grace of God etc" because I've never succumbed to any addictions or to outbursts of violence. I've also come to realise that very damaged children sometimes - not always, of course - grow into very damaged adults and I have much more empathy with them than I do with bent solicitors or cheating bankers or fraudulent accountants... or big-time drug king-pins who never use their own toxic product.

      If prison is to fulfil any purpose other than costly human warehousing then there needs to be a concerted effort made to get to the root causes of an individual's criminal offending and target appropriate interventions. Otherwise, in the majority of cases, rehabilitation will be pretty nigh on impossible.

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    2. It's a very good comment that you make. Benefits should be a temporary safety net for a very short time.

      Sadly, even those not totally institutionalised do struggle to find employment upon release. A criminal record can have an massive impact on job prospects - even for somebody with a short sentence for a 'minor' offence. As an employer with two equally able candidates for a position in your company would you take on the ex-con?

      So, it's the benefits system that picks up the bill (and us, the taxpayers). Jobseekers allowance doesn't really pay enough to live a life, for the criminally minded that means earning funds in other ways, usually through some sort of crime. Get caught - back to prison.

      Prisons really do need to give some alternative to this lifestyle. It's impossible to break the offending/back to prison routine for some folk because that's the options they have.

      There is no rehabilitation in prison, no help to get a 'normal' life.

      We send our children to school to get educated at 5 years old, if they all leave the system unable to read or write it would make headlines. We go to hospital unwell and expect to leave treated. If that didn't happen there would be serious repercussions. However, if somebody goes into prison as a criminal they should leave there a good law-abiding person - that's what prisons are there for but they just are not working. It's a very expensive human warehousing project costing the taxpayer £billions.

      The reoffending rates show clearly that imprisonment is simply clicking the pause button on a criminals career until he's free to do it again.

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  2. Here is a link to a charity called "Bridging the Gap":
    http://btguk.org/

    It helps ex cons to find work and maintains a penpal scheme for cons.

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  3. This charity befriends cons and mentors them:
    http://www.newbridgefoundation.org.uk/

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    1. Many thanks for that. New Bridge is in my list of useful organisations on this blog. I'll add Bridging the Gap too.

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  4. In one of your previous posts you mentioned Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) for prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence. Could you clarify the rules about who is eligible for this?

    Prisoners who have nowhere to go may well dread the thought of their release, but so do some who are going back home. It may not be paranoid to fear that all their former friends will shun them and that they may be the target of vigilante action.

    The difficulty with all these stories is that it is so hard to generalise. For every case of an ex-con helped towards rehabilitation by a conscientious probation officer, there will be another story of a someone recalled to prison by a malicious jobsworth who delighted in putting obstacles in his way.

    Thank you once again for a very thought-provoking post.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and your question about Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL). This is something I know a reasonable amount about, both as an ex-prisoner who had a fair amount of ROTL before my own release and as an Insider (peer mentor) who helped literally hundreds of fellow prisoners fill in their ROTL applications while I was in a D-cat (open prison).

      ROTL is granted to serving prisoners for various purposes ahead of their actual release on licence: Resettlement Day Release (RDR) for a few hours to visit local towns; Resettlement Overnight Release (ROR) to go home or to a hostel in the area to which a prisoner will eventually be released – normally four nights every 28 days once eligible; Special Purpose Leave (SPL) for medical or dental treatment or family emergencies (ie funerals); Education Leave to attend local colleges to study and Childcare Resettlement Leave (CRL) if the prisoner will be a child’s sole carer again after release. ROTL can also be granted for regular day release to perform approved voluntary work or paid work in the community. No prisoner has any entitlement to ROTL, but have to apply and be risk assessed first.

      Lifers and prisoners on Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) normally have to demonstrate manageable risk by having a number of successful ROTLs before the Parole Board will recommend release on licence. Almost all of them will have to have made it to D-cat first. Without ROTLs it can be very difficult to persuade the Board to support release.

      In theory, ROTL can be applied for by any prisoner in B, C or D-cat prisons, but in reality it is pretty much restricted to D-cat prisoners in the last phase of their sentences – usually the final 6-9 months or so. Some B and C-cats can get escorted ROTL for family funerals, but will not be permitted to go alone. Hope that helps explain the system.

      In practice, there has been a significant tightening up of the eligibility for ROTL, mainly due to recent incidents such as the absconding of armed robber Michael "Skull Cracker" Wheatley. There have also been periodic moral panics led by the media about "murders being allowed out of prison" on ROTL.

      In fact only 56 prisoners are serving 'whole life' tariffs - that is they will die in prison, so everyone else is almost certain to get released as some point. That is why ROTL is so essential to preparing lifers and IPPs for the day they will walk out of the prison gate.

      On the other issue you raise, about the dread of release some prisoners feel even if they are going home, I wrote a recent blog post entitled: Perils and Pitfalls of Life After Prison.

      I observed: "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." You might find this post covers some of these issues.

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  5. More links regarding prisoner family support et c are available at:
    adammac.co.uk

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