For some inmates who have completed their jail term the short walk to freedom through the prison gates can mark the start of a new sentence. One project tries to smooth the transition for those without support
Each morning, hundreds of offenders who have served their time are released to walk through the prison gate and out to freedom. The luckiest will be met and whisked away by a partner, a son or a daughter.
Others may have a friend to collect them and house them until they find a place to stay and a job to pay the bills.
But for many there will be no one to meet them and nowhere to go. With only about £40 to their name and a one-way ticket to their probation appointment (but no further) in their pocket, for someone who has been abandoned, there can be little to prevent a swift slide back into a life of crime simply to secure a roof over their head.
It’s a desperate situation for people who may be institutionalised after years inside, have mental health, drug or alcohol problems, or who are chaotic in their lifestyle, says Rob Owen, chief executive of the St Giles Trust charity which works with offenders in prison and after their release.
“We know there are drug pushers hanging around prison gates just waiting for people to be released; they prey on them when they’re at their most vulnerable,” he says.
“When you have nothing else, it’s just so easy to go back to your old associates. It’s what you’re used to and there’s a kind of security in it. You get a circle of offending and they end up back inside, having committed another offence.”
Catching someone before they fall is the mission of St Giles’s project, Through the Gate. Launched in July 2008 and with offices in north and south London, its workers can be the only safety net a released prisoner has to rely on.
Case worker Julia Church is one of a team of 11 in the charity’s Southwark office who may have fewer than 24 hours’ notice to meet a prisoner due for release the next day.
“Where possible, I’d visit the client in the prison,” Church says. “But sometimes we might only get the referral a day or so in advance of them being released, so if we can’t go, we’ll do a phone interview. We’ll ask whether they have friends and family, so they’re not rough sleeping; about their drug and alcohol history; whether there are any areas they can’t go; what reading and writing skills they have; and whether they will need benefits.
“They’ll need official forms of ID to access benefits, but when they come out they might only have their prison letter, so we’ll apply for their birth certificate. It’s only £7 or so, and can take a few days to come through, or sometimes it’s weeks.”
Though she’s based in London – the project works only with people whose last local authority area was one of the participating London boroughs – Church knows that she could find herself travelling anywhere in the country, because prisoners often serve their sentences far from home.
She often arrives at her bed and breakfast late at night, and leaves at the crack of dawn to ensure she is outside the prison as her client emerges.
“At the gates of the prison, drink is the big one,” she says. “I might meet my client outside, get a taxi to the station with him, and see others released at the same time on the train, already reeking of drink.”
Given that there’s paperwork to be processed before an inmate is let out, Church knows she could be in for a long wait. But from the point at which she introduces herself and accompanies her client to the compulsory probation appointment that same day, it is clear that their life chances have suddenly, and massively, improved.
Housing, it turns out, is the most crucial factor. Without this, Church emphasises, the risks are immense, not just the chance of reoffending, but also the longer term health of the released prisoner and any hope they have of finding a job and turning their life around.
Some prisoners, especially those doing long stretches inside, are under the misapprehension that housing will be provided on release. Edward* 28, her client as of six weeks ago when he was released after serving two years of a four-year sentence, confirms this. “I was sort of half hoping that there would be some accommodation for me,” he says.
“But I didn’t see the lady from the National Association for Care and Resettlement of Offenders until a week before I got out. And she told me, basically, that there wasn’t any. It was a bit scary. I had no idea where I’d spend that first night.”
Just before his release date, however, he spoke to Julia on the phone and she agreed to meet him at the gate. “It was nice that, to have her there,” he says.
Most unusually, says Church, in Edward’s case, one of his family agreed to pay for him to stay two weeks in bed and breakfast. Church applied for crisis loans, helped Edward complete benefit applications and arranged viewings at rental properties owned by private landlords with whom St Giles had good relationships.
More typical is the case of a recent client who was in prison for only a month. Yet his life imploded on release.
“He lost his documents and passport, had only one set of clothes and was very chaotic,” says Church.
“He was living with friends where possible but at one point had nowhere to go, so I got him an emergency hostel for one night, right across the city, in Aldgate. He was on the streets for about a month before we were able to sort him out.”
The fact that housing is so scarce complicates Church’s job. It is, she says, the trickiest element in her workload. She ticks off the options available to people released on parole: there seem to be many, but all are temporary and most require her clients to meet strict criteria.
“If they’re particularly high risk, the probation officer can try to put them in approved premises – the old bail hostels – but there’s a shortage of places,” Church says. “Or, if you get a referral early enough, you can refer clients to supported housing. If the client has a mental health concern or a previous drug or alcohol issue, you can try taking them to the homeless person’s unit.
“By law the council has to assess them, but often they won’t fit the criteria. They have to be in quite a bad state. But we can often get them into temporary accommodation; a B&B, a house, whatever’s available, for 28 days, at which time they’re reassessed.”
Begging phone calls
Otherwise, she says, it’s two nights in a B&B paid for by a £50 crisis grant, begging phone calls to friends and family, or a life on the street. It takes time to find private rented accommodation, and the housing benefit to pay for it can take weeks to come through.
Meanwhile, crisis loans (set at just under £100 to last two weeks) for housing and food can only be sought after her clients have attended a Jobcentre interview and applied for benefits.
Messy, piecemeal and administratively complex, this is hardly what one could call a “system”, nor is it surprising that it takes a skilled and determined professional to navigate a way through.
Church has between 20 and 30 cases active at any one time, as do her colleagues. The impact these case workers have on at-risk – and potentially risky – individuals as they try to reassimilate into society can be the difference between the virtual certainty of a criminal future and a fighting chance of going straight.
“If Julia hadn’t been there to help, I’d be homeless, depressed and I’d have gone back to crime,” Edward says. “It’s the inevitable really.” Because of Through the Gate, the reality is this: he has a bedsit, he’s looking for a job and, though he’s battling the boredom of being unemployed, he seems quite positive. “Every day is an easier day,” he says.
This article is published in the 1 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Hello, cruel world