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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Andy Gregory

‘Cell, street, repeat’: Thousands of prisoners being set up to fail with release into homelessness


Thousands of prisoners are being released with tents and sleeping bags into a revolving door of homelessness, reoffending and jail, despite a major scheme to house departing inmates, experts have told The Independent.

A crisis in the overstretched prison and probation service means many inmates are not being given any housing help until the day of their release, charities said – an issue some fear is being exacerbated by the government’s emergency move to bring forward release dates to free up space in full-to-bursting jails.

Around 600 people leave prison into homelessness every month, the latest official figures up to March show. While two-thirds are likely to reoffend within a year, research suggests, the lack of a stable address can also make prison recalls for breaches of licence conditions more likely, charities warned.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of charity Nacro, which provides housing for prison leavers across the country, said the figure was far too high, while a senior Tory MP warned that reoffending as a result of homelessness could hinder government efforts to ease overcrowding in prisons.

Warning of “a cycle of cell, street, repeat”, Mr Robb added: “Without a home to go to after being released, it is virtually impossible to maintain or start drug rehabilitation, get a job, build back positive relationships, or reintegrate back into and contribute positively to society.

“Without somewhere to live, we are setting people up to fail.”

The grim figures come despite a new government scheme to ensure prisoners released on probation are given 12 weeks of accommodation, which came into full force nationwide in November, having been steadily expanded since it was first rolled out in five regions back in July 2021.

Probation inspectors say the scheme is having a positive impact, and the government said 5,796 prison leavers were supported between July 2021 and March 2023.

But analysis by The Independent found that 11,609 others have been released into homelessness over the same period, while the housing situation for a further 11,000 prison leavers was “unknown” – equating to a fifth of all released prisoners.

Prisons ‘are struggling to do the basics’, one expert warns
— (Getty Images)

Charities also warn the new scheme is simply “pushing the problem three months down the line”, with some people evicted back onto the streets once their 12 weeks of accommodation is over.

And the scheme does not apply to those released from remand, despite the number of people jailed while awaiting trial sitting at a 50-year high – further fuelling the overcrowding crisis.

The Independent raised the issue with the Ministry of Justice, and it is understood that the government will investigate options to temporarily house acquitted remand prisoners who walk free from court into homelessness.

But with prisons severely overstretched, their ability to plan for prisoners’ release is worsening – to the extent that not one jail visited by inspectors in the year to April was rated “good” for rehabilitation and release planning – down from 30 per cent in 2020.

“Unfortunately, most people don’t even get the limited support that they are entitled to,” said Daniel Rajan Mills, policy lead at prison-leaver charity Switchback.

The charity told The Independent that 41 per cent of the men it worked with were released into homelessness in 2023 – the highest level since 2017, save for a post-pandemic spike in 2022 when seven in 10 of their clients left prison without any accommodation.

The “massive staffing crisis” in prison and probation mean “they are struggling to do the basics, assessments and referrals are happening far too late for any meaningful action to be taken”, warned Mr Mills.

“A relationship between a probation officer and someone leaving prison should start at least three months before release but it’s very normal to hear that someone leaving prison only meets their probation officer on the day of release,” he said.

“A lot of the time, councils will do the bare minimum required in law to support people.”

New government plans to ease prison overcrowding risk heaping further pressure on a probation service already in crisis, The Independent has previously been told
— (iStock/Getty)

Tory justice committee chair Sir Bob Neill warned it was “not satisfactory at all” that prisoners are not receiving help until their day of release, adding: “I think this is the vicious circle –because prisons are overcrowded, staff are overworked, that sort of work isn’t being done as soon as it should.”

Warning that simply releasing people into the unknown “would certainly make it harder” for ministers to reduce overcrowding in prisons, Sir Bob told The Independent that MPs on the justice committee could examine the impact of homelessness as part of their current inquiry into future prison capacity.

“In the long run, getting people settled accommodation is going to reduce the risk of them committing further crimes and more people being victims. It’s got to be in society’s good in the long run, and government needs to be prepared to invest up front in that,” Sir Bob said.

Beverley Brooks, founder of Recruitment Junction, a charity which helps former inmates find work, said the lack of housing for prisoners “continues to be the biggest barrier to people moving on with their lives”.

It is also the biggest contributor to the 50 to 60 per cent of their clients who are recalled to prison, three quarters of which is not for new criminality but for breach of licence conditions or poor behaviour, such as not attending appointments with probation after a night on the streets or a park bench, she said.

It is ‘not rare’ for prisoners to be released with tents and sleeping bags, HM chief prisons inspector said
— (EPA)

Anna Fairbank, a solicitor at the Prisoners’ Advice Service, said some recalled prisoners who had contacted the charity for help were “angry about the about huge problems they faced as a result of being homeless, about the lack of support and about being recalled for a minor breach”.

One prisoner told the charity he was a wheelchair user who was released homeless with a licence condition preventing him from entering his home or his home town, where both his probation office and the housing centre were situated.

But he said after being “left on the pavement in his wheelchair, in the cold with no funds and nowhere to go”, he decided to stay in his empty house until a meeting with probation several days later. Despite claiming to have seen no one while at his property, police arrived and arrested him the day before his meeting.

Chief prisons inspector Charlie Taylor told The Independent that it’s “not rare” for prisoners to be released with tents and sleeping bags “because they know they’re going to be homeless”, with women at HMP Styal leaving their belongings in the property store “because it’s the safest place to keep it and they knew they were coming back anyway”.

Charlie Taylor suggested prison has become ‘another social service’
— (iStock/Getty)

Some find prison to be safer than being homeless, he said, recalling meeting a prisoner who had pleaded with magistrates to jail him “because there was a cold snap coming and he was a heroin addict who knew there was a risk he was going to die over Christmas [without] anywhere safe to live”.

“So the reality is that prison becomes, for some of these guys, another social service. Being in Bedford jail is not a great place to be – so the alternative must be pretty hellish,” the chief inspector said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have taken unprecedented action by providing temporary accommodation and support to find a permanent home to over 5,700 prison leavers who would otherwise have ended up on the streets and recently expanded the scheme nationwide.

“Our staff do incredible work turning offenders into law-abiding citizens which is why we have recruited over 4,000 trainee probation officers since 2020 and have an extra 4,700 prison officers than in 2017.”

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