Russell Webster - Work with Offenders
Work with Offenders looks at the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness for women offenders
The Independent Monitoring Boards have published a damning new report revealing that the majority of women released from our prisons do not have a secure home to go to.
The report was based on research with 80 female prisoners in 10 out of the 12 women’s prisons in England and Wales; its headline findings were:
What are IMBs?
Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) exist for every prison and immigration removal centre and are made up of ordinary members of the public who are independent, unpaid and make an average of 3-4 visits to their local institution per month. Their role is to monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison and ensure the proper standards of care indecency are maintained. You can see a full profile of their role in a previous article on our website.
One of the report’s most striking findings concerned the proportion of women coming into prison on short sentences with maximum disruption to lives and minimum time available to provide meaningful rehabilitation and resettlement. Women are more likely than men to receive a short sentence, with 77% of sentences for women in 2019 being for less than 12 months according to official statistics.
This means that prisons and their partner organisations have little time to address offending related needs and struggle to provide more than the most basic assistance.
Homelessness is well known to increase the likelihood of reoffending. Research published by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 showed that prisoners who said they would need help finding somewhere to live when released were also more likely to be reconvicted than those who did not state that they needed this help (65% compared to 45%).
Prisoners and resettlement staff interviewed for this report identified finding suitable housing as the main challenge. In addition to increasing the likelihood of reoffending, living on the streets is obviously a poor option for vulnerable women often with underlying mental health issues, victims of domestic and sexual abuse and suffering from previous trauma. All of these issues are over-represented in the female prison population. Although information was patchy, it did appear (unsurprisingly) that prisons discharging people back to London had the most difficult challenge to find them suitable housing.
Most prisoners were critical about the resettlement options they were offered, reporting that either that there was no help or that it was too late. In one prison where the IMB cross-referenced the experiences of prisoners and resettlement teams, there was often a mismatch. For example, one prisoner said that she had received minimal support whereas the CRC through-the-gate service said that she had declined help with accessing benefits and linking up with community organisations.
The IMB report described a “rich tapestry of interventions available within prisons” but a significant disparity between the services apparently on offer and the help which prisoners felt they received. They attributed this to a range of issues including prisoners not available for appointments because of low staffing, problems motivating and engaging some prisoners and not enough time to deliver interventions for short sentence prisoners.
The report’s recommendations ask Ministers to tackle the over-use of short sentences and put in place a joined-up approach across government to ensure women have the support they need, particularly in relation to mental health support on release.
The IMBs note that although prisons are required to refer prisoners at risk of being homeless to local authorities under the Homelessness Reduction Act, the local authority is only obliged to consider their housing needs and to provide advice and signposting. This obviously falls a long way short of actually providing any form of accommodation.