The persistent problem of women being released homeless from prison

Work with offenders on a problem that won’t go away

Today Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons published a routine inspection of HMP Bronzefield, a privately-run (by Sodexo) prison for female adults and young offenders on the outskirts of Ashford in Surrey. The inspection report paints a mixed picture: a better than average response to the challenges of COVID restrictions and some encouraging findings in education and purposeful activity offset against criticisms around healthcare and resettlement.

However, the finding that has generated the most concern is that way too many women are released without safe and sustainable accommodation. The inspectorate found that a shocking 65% women were leaving Bronzefield without appropriate homes to go to. The chance of anyone turning their life around with a safe place to lay their head is, of course, remote. Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor spelt the problem out:

“Without stable, safe accommodation many women are liable to have mental health relapses, return to substance misuse and become involved in crime on release, creating more victims and, at great cost to the taxpayer, repeating the cycle and undoing the good work of the prison.”

Inspectors’ blog

The inspectorate is so concerned that it has published a dedicated blog alongside the inspection report by Sandra Fieldhouse the lead inspector for women’s prisons.  She comments that for some prisoners, this pattern of being released without safe housing with a quick rearrest and return to prison appears to be an accepted fact. She cites being told on a recent prison inspection that one woman released some days prior to the inspectors’ visit had, tragically, left her personal belongings at the prison for safe keeping because she expected to be returning soon.

Ms Fieldhouse points out that many women in prison have been victims of domestic violence and other personal trauma, and are more likely than men to declare mental health and substance misuse problems on arrival into custody.

She highlights that the problem on release is not just about the availability of accommodation, but the suitability of what is on offer. Women frequently tell inspectors that they turn down some housing options because of safety concerns – such as a hostel shared with men. Some women have suffered a history of domestic violence and are left with an impossible choice between returning to live with an abusive partner or sleeping on the streets.

The shortage of suitable accommodation for women on release is often compounded by under-resourced resettlement teams in prisons. At Bronzefield inspectors found that the reunification of the probation service last summer and changes in commissioning arrangements led to the withdrawal of two full-time housing workers, and a severe reduction in the size of the resettlement team. The four workers who remained, were doing the work formerly carried out by a team of 10. Inspectors also commented on the fact that, despite 90% of the women in Bronzefield coming from London, their resettlement provider was from a different probation area.

It is clear that this is a national problem and the Government’s Female Offender Strategy, published almost four years ago in June 2018, has made a series of commitments. The inspectors and many others working with women in the criminal justice system are pushing for these commitments to be honoured.