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The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Help is needed to deal with the challenges of life ‘on the outside’

It is worth remembering that nearly every person we lock up (as I write this post the current UK prison population stands at 83,655 – an increase of nearly 1,500 on this time last year) will be released back into the community one day.

Many of our clients tell us that the crucial few days after release is when the real battle starts. Most prisoners come out determined to go straight with no intention of ever seeing the inside of a cell again. Prison is a harsh, lonely, degrading experience with overcrowding compounding this (imagine having to share an in-cell, unconcealed toilet with a complete stranger – this is the reality of an adult prison rather than the image of three star luxury presented by some tabloids). The loss of liberty is the punishment element of prison but a side effect of this is that prisoners are often ill-equipped for life ‘on the outside’. Too many are released without stable accommodation to go to, help getting their finances sorted and support into work or training. Others simply find the outside world too overwhelming and the smallest things become a huge challenge. One man talked of being in tears at the station on his way home from prison because he couldn’t handle the bustle of a small suburban rail station. Another confided that he used to run out of shops in a panic when shopping with his kids because he couldn’t deal with crowds.

Brash, hardy exteriors are adopted as a mode of survival on the prison wing but these defences can come crashing down when people are released back into the community. St Giles Trust aims to help ease this transition by offering practical and emotional support to people leaving prison and handholding them through the following few weeks when the risk of re-offending is very high if the right support is not in place.

Our caseworkers are right by their side from the minute they are released if they need it and stay with them until they are settled. We will not abandon anyone by leaving them homeless and stranded – if necessary we will pay for emergency housing out of our own resources if family, local councils and housing associations cannot provide a roof.

The impact of this work is huge. For 16 months, St Giles Trust were funded by The London Probation service to provide post-release support to prison leavers returning to London. During this time over 1,500 prison leavers were referred to the service and we successfully housed over 1,000 of them who would have had nowhere to go otherwise. Only a handful were recalled to prison during this time.

Unfortunately, funding for this service came to an end. We are still providing an ad hoc version through various other smaller projects we have been able to get up and running to pick up the huge levels of unmet need. However, these are operating under considerable pressure and are no replacement for a dedicated service which provides a single point of contact for anyone leaving prison requiring support.

That is why we are calling for everyone who needs help on release from prison to be provided with the opportunity to be met and supported by someone who can help them get established outside and negotiate the rocky road to resettlement. Someone who has had a spell in prison will face huge barriers– many are homeless, connections with friends and family have often broken down and they may face discrimination when looking for employment or training.

Someone who commits a crime deserves to be punished – that is without question. But for too long now we have set ex-prisoners up to fail once they are released back into the community. Continuing to judge and discriminate against ex-offenders after they have finished their sentence serves no-one and ensures a one-way ticket back to prison, with all the associated costs and misery this brings. Surely everyone deserves a second chance?

Rob Owen,
Chief Executive, St Giles Trust

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