England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Welfare and equalities

Supporting prison leavers back into communities

Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Switchback is a London-based charity that helps 18-to-30-year old male prison leavers to find a stable new path through mentorship and partnerships.

Every month, thousands of people across the country leave prison and return to their communities. Release should mean an opportunity to re-enter society as a citizen and make a new start. But, for many, it’s a time of great stress and the beginning of a whole new set of challenges. A lack of support means that almost half of prison leavers are reconvicted within a year, causing more crime, reoffending and poverty.

“I was taken to the gates by a group of officers and let out the door with three bags, no phone and no way to contact anyone. Not having a plan caused anxiety.”

Recalls 23-year-old Patrick, currently a university student, who was supported by Switchback after leaving prison last year.

As Justice Secretary Dominic Raab points out, only 14% of people have a job six months after leaving prison. Yet while access to employment is vital, for many, finding and keeping a job is unrealistic when so much else in their life is unstable.

Last year during the pandemic, for example, more than one in four prisoners were released as homeless or to unknown circumstances – rising to 44% in London. When we include those with only a temporary address, more than half of all prison leavers did not have stable accommodation to return to.

Access to finance and technology are the next hurdles. Among young prison leavers in London supported by Switchback: 46% don’t have a bank account on release; a quarter have no ID; a fifth don’t have a phone for internet access. Without these essentials in place, it’s near impossible to apply for jobs, access Universal Credit or other vital services.

Following campaigning from Switchback and other organisations, the government recently took the welcome step of increasing the ‘subsistence payment’ given to prison leavers for the first time in 25 years – from £46 to £76. This will help, but it still can’t plug a benefits gap of several weeks, and so Switchback still provides travelcards and shopping vouchers for our trainees to get to appointments and comply with their license conditions.

These challenges prevent far too many people from fulfilling their potential and building stable, rewarding lives in work. Facing barriers without meaningful support is driving reoffending, which constitutes an alarming 80% of all cautions and convictions.

“The reason I got sent to jail was not having money and being homeless. Releasing me into the exact same situation doesn’t make any sense,” says Patrick.

Since 2008, Switchback has supported hundreds of young Londoners to find their way out of the justice system through skilled mentoring, real work training and practical help to get things like housing, benefits and banking sorted. While 46% of prison leavers re-offend within a year nationally, for young men supported by Switchback the figure is just 9%.

Switchback’s experience shows that skilled 1-to-1 support is key. Yet in order to thrive with support, people first need the basic means to survive. That’s why this year we launched the Reshape Release campaign, calling for every person leaving prison to be provided with the essentials that are necessary to move forward: guaranteed accommodation, a basic smartphone with data, and a Release Pack including shopping vouchers and a travelcard.

Local authorities have the opportunity to play a significant role in reshaping release and reducing reoffending and poverty in their local areas. Housing support, for example, must be better tailored to the needs of vulnerable prison leavers – who are often turned away from services. Central government should also be empowering councils to play a stronger role in planning prison leavers resettlement in their communities and coordinating the complex web of services they must navigate. The Local Leadership and Integration Fund (LLIF) – part of the government’s Prison Leavers Project – is a small but promising step in this direction, allowing some enterprising councils to spearhead a localised approach. Many others are taking the initiative to forge local partnerships to improve resettlement support. This should be built upon.

With the prison population set to reach a record 100,000 by 2026, there has never been a more pressing need to ensure people have the best chance of success after prison. In the end, all of society will benefit.

This blog was commissioned as part of our focus on crime prevention and rehabilitation for the Global Local Recap. Click here to find out more about our free, weekly newsletter showcasing innovative global responses to pressing local issues. 

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