A justice system fit for the future
Last week (28 August 2020) Nacro published a new policy briefing entitled: A justice system fit for the future: lessons from the coronavirus pandemic to build a fairer and effective path to resettlement.
The briefing reflects on three key themes which emerged from its work helping people leave prison and settle back into the community:
- Access to basic essentials
A lack of accommodation for prison leavers is not a new issue, and it is estimated that over 30% of
rough sleepers have been in prison. We know that there is often a window of opportunity for people
on release from prison when they are keen to make change and move on. However, this can be
quickly lost when the barriers are too high and things are not in place to help them move forward
and away from crime. People can be swept into a current they can feel powerless to escape from –
effectively being set up to fail.
Nacro resettlement staff said that the biggest challenge they have faced since lockdown was
finding accommodation for people on release from prison compared to pre-COVID. Despite the
Government’s commitment to house all rough sleepers, people continued to be released from prison
with nowhere to stay, despite the pandemic. From 23rd March to 30th April 2020 over 1,000 people
were released from prison into rough sleeping or other forms of homelessness.
The Ministry of Justice initially committed additional funding to all prison leavers at risk of
homelessness for the period from June to the end of August 2020. However, there has been limited housing availability during the pandemic and it is critical to find longer term and sustainable solutions.
Nacro recommends that the government should ensure that everyone leaving prison should have safe and secure accommodation including:
- Access to deposits for private rented accommodation for those who are able to live independently
- Specific supported schemes for vulnerable cohorts such as women, young people and those with mental health concerns
- A staged approach which recognises the different level of support needs of people leaving prison, including more availability of floating support to those who need it
- Prison leavers should be classed as priority need for housing by local authorities
- Funding and support to enable prison leavers to move on from temporary accommodation into suitable long term tenancies, with ongoing support provided to sustain these placements
- Access to supported accommodation for those who are unable to live independently or require additional support
- In the short term, the Ministry of Justice funding available during the pandemic should be extended until longer term solutions are put in place.
People are often released from prison with only the clothes that they are wearing, their £46 discharge grant, travel warrant and discharge papers. For people who are returning to their family home or other accommodation, the things that they need may be waiting for them upon their arrival, however, for all too many, what they leave prison with is all they have.
Being able to buy the basics such as food and toiletries is vital for someone trying to rebuild their life
after release from prison. It was problematic for many people leaving prison before the pandemic,
but COVID-19 meant it became even more difficult. 52% of Nacro resettlement staff report that it was
more difficult for the prison leavers they work with to access the basic essentials on release as a result of COVID.
Access to benefits has also been a longstanding issue because it is not possible to submit an application for Universal Credit while in prison, and it takes up to five weeks to receive the first payment. It is even more problematic for those who do not have ID or a bank account. While people can apply to receive an advance payment, this is not always processed immediately and the repayments can leave many spiralling into debt.
The DWP initiative to set up a dedicated phone line for prison leavers to make Universal Credit applications made a big difference. The introduction of a higher £80 Subsistence Grant for prisoners released under the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme, together with the provision of mobile phones for those who did not have them, was an important initiative taken during the pandemic, but it is clear that the needs of others released at the end of their prison term were also significant.
- The DWP phone line for prison leavers should be a permanent service to enable people leaving prison to easily make a claim for Universal Credit
- An increase in the discharge grant for all prisoners, not just those released under the Early Release Scheme to bridge the gap between release and access to benefits or other income
- Basic needs grants particularly for clothing and other essential items
- Release packs containing basic essentials such as sufficient toiletries and basic food supplies to get people through their first days.
Nacro staff and service users highlighted the fact that difficulties in communication have caused stress and anxiety for people serving prison sentences and for those leaving prison during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, three quarters of staff said that changes to family contact and social distancing measures had made the resettlement of the people they work with more challenging. Maintaining contact with friends and family is really important for people in prison, as links to the outside world can really help with the transition back into the community and strong family and community connection can support a reduction in reoffending.
Leaving prison is often a difficult and stressful time for many people, and so good communication and the right support really can make a significant difference in giving people the best chance to be able to turn their lives around.
Nacro made four key recommendations about communications:
- Ensure all prison leavers who need one have a mobile phone
- Retain the funding for extra phone credit and reduced phone charges for people in prison
- Improve in-cell technology to ensure that people can stay in touch with their families even if locked down
- Continue and expand the use of video visits and email contact.