Hundreds become homeless once they leave prison - here's what happened to one of them
- Credit: Luke Harris
It is a cold, wet, chilling evening in Wisbech. The date is October 2. The time 4pm. I sit drinking coffee with Simon Crowson, better known as Spike, and an ex-prisoner, who I will call Alan.
We are in Spike’s ‘office’, a sparsely furnished room to the rear of 50 Backpacks Vision in Bridge Street, the organisation he runs to help the town’s homeless. Its successes and challenges have been well documented but it is Alan who concerns us both.
Spike had explained in a phone call the predicament in which Alan finds himself.
Alan tells me he knew his release date a month before but locked up in a pandemic lockdown means no one comes to visit. No agency or organisation wants to know.
At 11.30am on the day of his release the doors are opened, and he’s outside: his worldly possessions inside a black holdall provided by the prison.
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Put in a taxi to the city bus station, £48 discharge allowance, and £12 for fares, he heads to his home town of Wisbech.
He struggles but takes advice and uses his discharge allowance and some cash from friends to get a room for the night at the Rose and Crown. The following day Fenland Council agrees he can stay there and will pay for his accommodation - part of the Government response to the Covid-19 lockdown.
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But 12 weeks later, and in receipt of what is effectively an eviction notice from Fenland Council, Alan is homeless. Government funding will no longer pay for his stay at the hotel and he’s on his own.
“Nobody came to see me, no food parcels, no one gave me anything,” says Alan. “Then suddenly the hotel manager tells me he’s had a letter from the council kicking me out.”
Spike tells me he can find – indeed guarantee – Alan a flat the following week but that is then, this is now. If Alan is homeless, even for five days, he is of no fixed abode and subject to recall to prison.
It is not an uncommon story – indeed HM Inspector of Prisons points to the very same thing happening multiple times, week in, week out.
“A third of prisoners leaving Peterborough prison have no settled accommodation to go to,” says Charlie Taylor. His inspection team visited the prison on November 17 and again from November 23-24.
An average of 100 prisoners a month are released from Peterborough prison. Resettlement services are provided by St Giles Trust, on behalf of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire (BeNCH) Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC).
However, Mr Taylor says the survey conducted by his team reveal some unsettling facts and figures about release. He says only 30 per cent of prisoners due for release in the next three months said that someone was helping them to prepare for release.
St Giles Trust and CRC staff withdrew from the prison at the start of the restricted regime, but the team began returning in May “to provide a modified service”.
He says: “Stringent CRC risk assessments meant that it still refused to provide face-to-face support, even to a critical few prisoner, although there was suitable and safe interview space.
“Consequently, resettlement planning was still carried out by telephone, which was unsatisfactory.
“The quality of some of the resettlement plans we reviewed was inadequate. Some included information in stark conflict to that in earlier assessments conducted by the prison and CRC staff. “
Mr Taylor says that referrals were made to support services as necessary, but because some service providers and partner organisations were working remotely, or at reduced capacity, the needs of some prisoners were not fully met before release.
“St Giles Trust helped prisoners to open bank accounts, but other interventions, such as debt advice and support for prisoners to make benefits applications, had been limited,” he says.
Eighty-five prisoners had been released on home detention curfew (HDC) in the six months prior to his team’s inspection.
“Over 80 per cent of HDC releases in the previous three months were within seven days of the prisoner’s eligibility date,” says Mr Taylor.
“Only 51 per cent of those eligible for HDC had been approved.”
Mr Taylor says the prison attributed this to difficulties in securing accommodation, but he believes it needs to do more “to understand and address poor outcomes in this area”.
There is some light at the end of a long tunnel for some prisoners coming to the end of their sentence.
The prison and Nacro has secured 15 units of accommodation in the city centre that are being prioritised for prisoners released from Peterborough. In addition, St Giles Trust had secured funding from Peterborough City Council to recruit a member of staff to provide support to prisoners who had been rough sleeping before coming into custody.
“Despite these efforts, nearly a third of prisoners released in the previous six months had no settled accommodation to go to,” says Mr Taylor.
For Alan, a happy ending of sorts. He was booked back into the hotel for five more nights – his board and lodgings paid for privately. God that night moved in a mysterious way.
The following Wednesday Spike called to confirm Alan had moved to the promised accommodation.