Ex-offenders face neglect from the very services set up to help them

Originally published in The Guardian

Stephen Whitehead

 

Jason knew he wouldn’t and shouldn’t get the job. Yet his jobcentre adviser told him to apply to the pharmaceutical warehouse anyway. The problem? “I’m a convicted drug dealer. They won’t even let me set foot in the place.”

 

Like many of the former prisoners I’ve met recently through my research for the Centre for Justice Innovation, Jason knows only too well the stigma of having done time. He’s also become aware of the limited advice out there for ex-prisoners wanting to make a fresh start.

 

Ex-prisoners we spoke to held out little hope of receiving help from places like Jobcentre Plus and local authority housing teams. In fact, we heard stories of subtle discrimination from the very public sector bodies which they rely on. As one person told us: “They don’t have a clue … The moment you come through the door they’ve got a judgment on you.” Former offenders are being neglected by services that don’t understand their needs and are often labelled as problematic or aggressive.

 

This matters. People coming out of prison need all the help they can get. Ministry of Justice research (pdf) has shown that former prisoners who have a stable home on release are 15% less likely to reoffend. Those with a job are 20% less likely to commit another crime. In a climate where homes and jobs are scarce offenders need all the help they can get. Nearly two in five prisoners (37%) say that they will need help finding a place to live when they are released (pdf). Three out of four don’t have a job lined up on release (pdf).

 

The difficulties that former prisoners face are compounded by the shadow of their criminal past. Our research has uncovered many stories of prisoners facing discrimination and prejudice. Margaret, an articulate woman in her forties, was fired after several years working in a job, accused of lying about her criminal record on her original application form. In reality, no one had thought to ask. Then there’s Ahmed, whose health was suffering as a result of damp in his rented flat. When he asked the landlord to fix it he was forced to leave, on the spurious pretext that he was intimidating his neighbours.

 

If we are to reduce the £15bn annual cost of reoffending we have to tackle this uncomfortable truth. Clearly, part of the solution is for welfare agencies to get better at working with people who’ve been to prison. In practice, the best way to tackle prejudice is to equip and expect prisoners to stand up for themselves.

 

In theory, the hundreds of voluntary advice centres around the country should offer a solution. Citizens advice bureaus (CABs), law centres and independent advice providers specialise in helping people to understand and challenge poor treatment. However, they have been hit by a perfect storm of funding cuts and rising demand. Even the most determined now find it hard to access these services. For former prisoners conditioned to expect disappointment, ploughing through the system often feels a waste of time.

 

We did find a few stand out, advice projects which work alongside probation and prisons. Ipswich Housing Action Group, for example, has been running debt clinics in prisons for 10 years. They help prisoners to clear debts and rent arrears so they can find a place to live on release. Coventry CAB developed a dedicated advice clinic for people on probation, housing, debt, benefits and employment issues. However, resources for these services are scarce. Coventry’s dedicated clinic, like many others, closed with the restructuring of probation in 2015. Likewise, the Ipswich service has reduced its scope.

 

We would like to see probation and prisons, especially the newly autonomous prisons that are meant to be standard bearers for rehabilitation, to invest in advice for prisoners, both inside and on release. However, we recognise that the justice system is itself struggling with budget cuts.

 

There’s no quick fix. Perhaps we can learn from advice givers who are taking on the challenges of austerity. Hackney law centre in London has trained up local clergy to provide a kind of advice first aid. With their links to people in the community the clergy are well-placed to diagnose and respond to the straightforward issues. People with more complex problems are pointed towards the right source of help. This has proved so effective, that plans are now afoot to turn the training programme into a smartphone app. Perhaps there’s something in this approach that probation could borrow in their work with offenders.

 

Our public services are looking at a future of being called on to do more for less. Apps and volunteers are by no means a silver bullet. But with imaginative training, simple technology and strategic investment, we can help former prisoners challenge prejudice and lay the foundations of a new life. Ultimately, that’s not just good for Jason, Margaret and Ahmed, it’s good for all of us.

 

  • Names have been changed
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