The challenges of being released from prison

Work with offenders on new research on prison release for people experiencing multiple disadvantage

A new report published today by the Fulfilling Lives team focuses on how the process of prison release for people experiencing multiple disadvantage could be improved.

The Fulfilling Lives programme

The National Lottery Community Fund has invested £112 million over 8 years in the Fulfilling Lives programme which consists of local partnerships in 12 areas across England, helping those experiencing multiple disadvantage access more joined-up services tailored to their needs. Multiple disadvantage is defined as experience of two or more of homelessness, substance misuse, reoffending and mental ill-health.

The programme’s stated aims are to change lives, change systems and involve beneficiaries. The programme is not a preventative programme, but instead aims to better support those with entrenched needs who are not otherwise engaging with services. The programme uses coproduction to put people with lived experience in the lead and builds on their assets to end the revolving door of disjointed care for adults.

The experience of prison for people experiencing multiple disadvantage is often a reoccurring series of short sentences, which create huge disruption to their lives with limited benefit in terms of rehabilitation. A short prison sentence means there is time for people to lose homes and jobs and for drug and alcohol and mental health treatment to be disrupted. However, a short sentence does not allow for people to get any meaningful support in prison or proper planning for release.

The research has found that among people supported by the Fulfilling Lives programme, there is an association between spending time in prison and having poorer outcomes, including being less likely to leave the programme to a positive destination.

The report details examples of effective practice from Fulfilling Lives areas and insights into how the process of prison release for people experiencing multiple disadvantage could be improved.

Key findings show that Fulfilling Lives support workers and navigators who engage with people while they are in prison are able to support and prepare them in advance of release.

Meeting prison leavers at the gate and offering support to them throughout this important day is crucial. As well as helping people navigate their myriad appointments on the day, support workers provide critical emotional support and encouragement.

The research found that peer support from someone with lived experience of prison is particularly welcomed by prison leavers. Peers can build trusting relationships based on shared experience and offer a role model for change.

Critical success factors 

The report identifies the key ingredients of effective prison release support for people experiencing multiple disadvantage. Staff need knowledge of different support services, to understand referral processes and criteria and have good working relationships with professionals, including in-prison teams.

Most importantly, support staff need small caseloads and flexible working arrangements that allow them to build relationships and spend the whole day supporting someone when they are released. Dedicated, gender-specific accommodation and support services are needed to meet the needs of women.

Unsurprisingly, effective information sharing is critical to ensure a smooth transition and that people are not expected to retell their story multiple times – something that can be retraumatising. Better information sharing can be supported through building trusting relationships with prison staff, but this remains a challenge.

Most important is the relationship between the worker and the prison leaver. All elements needed for an effective transition from prison may be in place but if the prison leaver chooses not to engage with the support, it will not succeed. A trusting relationship is vital for encouraging prison leavers to make positive choices on release and engage with the support on offer. Building a trusting relationship requires face-to-face contact and time. Relationship building needs to begin before someone is released from prison and continue as they transition into the community – a challenge when people are serving very short sentences.

The research also recommends that planning for prison release needs to be undertaken in partnership with the prison leaver and plans co-produced so they meet an individual’s personal goals. The report highlights the importance of persistence and patience so that support is available when someone decides to accept help. Researchers also emphasise that the support on offer should be separate from (and additional to) probation and prison services and allow staff to advocate on behalf of prison leavers.

Readers interested in reading the full report can find it here.