Point me in the right direction
A new (14 December 2016) report from the Centre for Justice Information highlights the difficulties that released prisoners find in accessing advice to help them with housing, work and benefits issues.
Point me in the right direction: Making advice work for former prisoners describes how people released from prison face myriad obstacles on the hard road towards a new life. They will need to overcome a shortage of affordable housing, mistrust and discrimination from employers, and a complex and inflexible benefits system.
Social welfare advice services such as Citizens Advice Bureaus, Law Centres and independent advice providers can help with these issues. But due to far-reaching cuts, these services often don’t work for former prisoners who don’t know the services, find it hard to get appointments, and face a sense of stigma about their offending past. The report looks at how we can make advice work better for people who have been in prison.
Life after prison
Housing and employment play a key role in helping people to build crime free lives. Prisoners who find a stable place to live shortly after release are 15% less likely to reoffend, while those who find paid work are 9% less likely. However, the Centre’s research with released prisoners uncovered numerous examples of them encountering many obstacles with even these basics:
- One person was living in private rented accommodation which was so damp it was making him ill. When he complained to the landlord, he was told that his criminal background was frightening his neighbours and was pressured into leaving.
- A second person had been employed for several years when a change of role within her organisation triggered a new criminal record check. She was wrongly accused of lying about her convictions and dismissed.
- A third was required to stay in a probation hostel after leaving prison but was dependent on benefits to pay his rent. When he was sanctioned for missing an appointment he was left without income and threatened with eviction, which could mean being recalled to custody. He was left with a stark choice – reoffend to raise his rent money or risk ending up in prison.
Advice for former prisoners
Social welfare advice services specialise in helping people deal with these kinds of issues. They offer free advice to help people understand and defend their rights. However, the research suggests that people who have been in prison face three barriers to accessing them:
- Awareness: Many of the service users consulted were not aware of the existence of advice service or the ways that they could help.
- Access: Recent cuts to legal aid and other funding and increases in demand have increased waiting times and reducing the help that’s on offer.
- Stigma: Former prisoners interviewed felt that services would not welcome them because of their criminal past. As one put it: “as an ex-con, they’ll do nothing for you.”
Making advice work
The report identifies four ways in which social welfare advice can be improved for former prisoners:
- Advice clinics in prison to help prisoners with issues like benefits and housing as they prepare for release.
- Training and resources for probation officers to help them to identify when social welfare advice can be helpful and to refer clients into these services.
- Better online directories of advice service can help service users find advice, and let services signal that they welcome people who have been in prison.
- New advice services which specialise in working with offenders and which employ people with experience of the justice system as staff and offer a more wide-ranging and long term support.
However, many of these options will cost money. And even those with no direct cost may be swimming against the tide of the advice sector which, faced with an increasing gap between demand and supply, is struggling to cope with existing client groups rather than seeking out new ones.
For this reason, the report urges commissioners of offender services – such as the National Offender Management Service, individual probation providers or newly empowered prison governors – to actively seek to include social welfare advice services in their commissioning processes and supply chains.
This is a valuable report, identifying a key issue for many released prisoners (and indeed many offenders in the community). I am aware of an organisation developing a range of apps designed to provide just this sort of advice and information to released prisoners.
If you’re interested in finding out more, please Email me.