Lack Of Advice Puts Prisoners At Risk Of Re-Offending – Citizens Advice

Lack of advice and support on key issues like housing, benefits and debt puts prisoners at risk of re-offending, a new report from Citizens Advice says today. A study by the national charity has found that thousands of prisoners fail to get the support they need to ensure their basic needs are met when they are released from jail.

As a result they may find themselves homeless and hungry and some re-offend as a result of immediate poverty. Citizens Advice Bureaux provide advice in 43 of the 139 prisons in England and Wales, and 28 bureaux work with probation services. Locked out is based on evidence from nearly 500 case studies from the CAB network, a survey of CAB prison and probation outreach services, and interviews with CAB clients in prison and on probation. It concludes that independent advice and support for all prisoners while in prison and on release can help break the cycle of re-offending.    

A third of prisoners lose their homes while they are in prison and half lose contact with their families, while a third also face mounting debts and many are left with no income for long periods on their release. But the report finds that those who have access to independent advice are more likely to keep a roof over their head, maintain family ties, stop debt problems escalating, and sort out benefit and employment issues. At present the availability of such support is patchy.

Many prisoners face the real prospect of destitution when they are released – exactly the time when research has shown they are most likely to re-offend. The discharge grant has remained fixed at £46.75 for the last 10 years – had it kept pace with inflation it would now be around £57. This is meant to meet living expenses for the first week after release, but most ex-prisoners have to wait much longer for benefit claims to be processed and for payments to start.  In one case a CAB client waited eight weeks before getting any money. Remand prisoners and victims of miscarriages of justice get no money or support of any kind on release.

More than two-thirds of prisoners re-offend and the key danger point is in the immediate aftermath of release.  Homeless offenders are more likely to re-offend, yet often newly released prisoners are automatically barred from housing waiting lists.  Women prisoners face a particular catch 22 – their children will not be returned to them until they have a home, but they are unlikely to be re-housed unless their children are living with them.

One case illustrates how homelessness can spiral into re-offending:
A Somerset CAB client, a single man estranged from his young daughters, had tried to commit suicide prior to his sentence.  He was arrested by the police due to an outstanding warrant and was imprisoned.  On release he had no money and nowhere to stay.  He had to sleep in his car in temperatures below freezing and he was in a vulnerable state of mind.  His homelessness application was refused, as he was not considered to be vulnerable.  After having been turned away, he admitted to stealing petrol to keep his car running, and then when the temperatures dropped even lower, he ripped a telephone off the wall in the police station so that he could have bed for the night. Following the intervention of the CAB, the local authority’s homeless persons unit agreed to help him if he provided details of his medical condition.

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to ensure that all prisoners have access to quality assured independent advice. It estimates that the cost of providing CAB advice to the whole UK prison population may amount to as little as £319 per prisoner per year, compared to the £35,000 it costs to keep one prisoner in jail if they return.

The charity says dealing with housing issues should become a core part of the induction process for new prisoners, so that they keep their home wherever possible. It also recommends that the discharge grant should be raised to at least £114.90 – the equivalent of two weeks’ income support.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive David Harker said: “When prisoners start custodial sentences their lives on the outside don’t just grind to a halt.  Bills still need to be paid, mortgage payments and rent need to be met, and family and friends have to get on with their lives.  Unless these issues are tackled with the help of advice, information and continuing support, the situation in which an offender finds themselves on release can be one of homelessness, relationship breakdown and unmanageable debt. This can affect their chances of successfully rejoining society, and so increase the chances of their re-offending.

“Financial stability in the period immediately following release is essential if an ex-prisoner is to resettle successfully into the community and avoid reverting to crime.  The first few weeks after release are critical for ex-offenders; but the system is stacked against them.  Many find it difficult to sort out practical problems such as benefits, housing and employment.  Services can be difficult to access, and take far too long to activate.  Too often recently released prisoners are left without any means of support or stable accommodation.  

“As a result, many may feel that they have little option but to return to crime. Advice and support to help them get their affairs in order can play a major role in helping offenders resettle back into the community and break the cycle of re-offending.”