A report from the social exclusion unit has highlighted
prisons’ failure to prevent re-offending. Clare Jerrom
examines what is needed to supplement custodial
Custodial sentences must be reformed if they are to have any
success in preventing ex-prisoners from re-offending.
This is the stark message from the government’s social exclusion
unit, in the light of new reconviction statistics showing that 58
per cent of offenders in 1997 were reconvicted of another crime
within two years. The figure for young offenders was even worse
with a 72 per cent reconviction rate for 18 to
With the prison population now exceeding a record 71,000, the
SEU report on reducing offending admits that prison sentences “are
not succeeding in turning the majority of offenders away from
Policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust Joe Levenson points
out: “People going into prison are the most socially excluded
people in society. They have multiple needs and in prison these
needs get more pronounced, they get more damaged and are more
likely to have housing and employment problems.
“Prisons are being clogged up with short-term prisoners. As a
result of imprisonment they could lose housing, family ties,
employment and contact with the community.”
Levenson says the rising prison population encourages
containment rather than preparing prisoners for release.
Rehabilitation and resettlement work can be “very patchy”.
Policy officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform Lorraine
Atkinson agrees. “There are good schemes, but not in every prison
and not every prisoner can join these schemes,” she says.
During inspections, chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers has
often highlighted poor resettlement and rehabilitation work,
particularly for the 18 to 20 age group.
In a recent report on Hindley Young Offenders Institution near
Wigan, Owers said resettlement work was inadequate. Twenty-five per
cent of prisoners expected to be homeless on release, yet nearly
half had received no help to find housing. Two-thirds said no one
had spoken to them about education or jobs.
Owers said in the report: “Without more investment in education,
employment, training and resettlement, these young people will
remain at high risk of re-offending on release.”
The SEU report lists nine factors that influence whether an
ex-prisoner will re-offend, including education, employment,
institutionalisation, financial support and family networks. Having
stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth,
the report says. Yet a new Home Office survey of prisoners nearing
release finds that 71 per cent with no accommodation arranged had
received no help in finding somewhere to live.2
Operations director at homelessness charity St Mungo’s Mike
McCall says: “Our experience has shown that many ex-prisoners will
end up homeless without proper advice and support, and once they’re
on the streets it’s much more difficult for them to avoid
Under the Homelessness Act 2002, local authorities are now
obliged to provide homes for people who are vulnerable because of
an institutionalised background. But is enough being done to
prevent prisoners becoming homeless on release?
Research by Manchester Prison Housing Link Group, a project set
up by English Churches Housing Group, finds that nationally there
are only 10 housing advice services based in about 140 prisons.
The project, which was set up after the ECHG noticed that a
large number of homeless clients at its rough sleepers’ unit in
Manchester were former short-term prisoners, has just secured a
year’s funding, following a six month pilot scheme.
Research accompanying the pilot soon found the project essential
for prisoners serving fewer than 12 months, who do not have access
to probation services and often receive little support because of
their short time inside.
Highlighting the importance of supported accommodation on
release, a spokesperson for youth homelessness charity Centrepoint
says about half the places at its Frederick Street hostel in King’s
Cross, London, are taken by young ex-offenders.
During their nine to 12-month stay, the project works with young
people in a “safe and stable environment” to tackle the issues
highlighted in the SEU report as reasons for re-offending.
The SEU proposes that, instead of relying on “patchy” good
initiatives, the home office should introduce a national
rehabilitation strategy to help prevent social exclusion among
former prisoners. It says a “going straight” contract, setting out
what is expected of the offender in prison and the community,
should be introduced and signed by the prisoner at the beginning of
The contract, which should be drawn up and overseen by a case
manager, should be tailored to the individual’s needs and aim to
address all factors likely to influence their chance of
re-offending. It should be set out in a programme of activities and
support, including education, training and offending behaviour
programmes; and address housing, financial and family issues.
In return, offenders should follow the programme and contribute
from their prison pay to make reparation to victims and help
finance the support the case manager would provide on release.
An SEU spokesperson says the scheme should be tried with 18- to
20-year-olds as they have a particularly high re-conviction
But, the report says, establishments not included in the
contract pilots should appoint an individual at senior governor
level with exclusive responsibility for rehabilitation. The
“rehabilitation governor” should boost the prison’s performance in
employment, finance, education, housing, drugs, mental health,
family issues, attitudes, institutionalisation and life skills.
The report also recommends extending the discharge grant used to
cover the period before the first benefit payment. Resettlement
departments in prisons should also secure emergency accommodation
for prisoners expecting to be homeless, and the case for enabling
more prisoners to retain their housing should be considered.
Effective reception and resettlement procedures should be
developed in all prisons, and services in the community, such as
offending behaviour programmes and mental health services, need to
The SEU hopes the recommendations will be rolled out to all
prisoners, but particularly those serving less than 12 months.
These are a “particularly needy group” as a result of receiving no
support from probation, a spokesperson explains.
The Prison Reform Trust welcomes the content of the report but
Levenson warns that while the prison population is so high it will
be an impossible struggle to get the problem under control.
“The government needs to divert less serious offenders away from
prison,” he says, adding that there should be more mental health
support and drug rehabilitation in the community.
Schools and health services could do more, such as diagnosing
mental health problems from an early age, he adds.
A spokesperson for housing charity Crisis agrees: “Vulnerability
is not being picked up until they are locked into a cycle of
She says that the plans are a “common sense approach”, but that
for them to work it is essential that there is “money,
implementation and joint working”.
A Youth Justice Board spokesperson adds: “Figures published in
June showed reconviction rates of juvenile offenders had been cut
by almost 15 per cent since the roll out of youth justice reforms.
But that does not mean no more needs to be done.”
As Levenson at the Prison Reform Trust says: “The challenge now
is for the government to act.”
1 Social Exclusion Unit, Reducing Re-offending by Ex
Prisoners, SEU, 2002
2 Home Office, Jobs and Homes — A Survey of
Prisoners Nearing Release, Home Office, 2002
Prisoners are 13 times more likely to have been in care than the
They are 13 times more likely to have been unemployed and 10
times more likely to have been a truant.
70 per cent were drug misusers before jail.
70 per cent suffer from at least two mental disorders. l 80 per
cent have the writing skills of an 11-year-old.