The prospect of leaving prison, being able to put that chapter of your life behind you and move on would seem to many people to be a time for optimism and hope. But for many women behind bars, there is another emotion, fear. Fear for the most basic and primal need, somewhere safe to sleep at night.
Our new report Home Truths, published today, found that while in-prison housing support should be an integral part of preparing for release, it is often last-minute, with some women unsure on the morning of their release if they will have accommodation that evening.
Leaving prison homeless is a recipe for reoffending. As one support worker at the charity Women in Prison quoted in the report said: “We are aware of a woman who had been imprisoned for theft, subsequently released homeless, was recalled for breach of Anti-Social Behaviour Order for sleeping in a park and then later released homeless again.”
A desperate shortage of hostels for women, social housing and support means that many leaving prison face an uncertain return to the community. Some may return to live with loved ones, but for others the prospect of ending up on the streets living rough, open to abuse is real, as is the risk of returning back to custody.
The problem has been exacerbated following the extension of mandatory supervision on release from custody for people serving short sentences. The change has disproportionately affected women. The number of women recalled to custody following their release has increased by 127% since the new measures were introduced, compared to a 14% rise for men.
Research has shown that women are more likely than men to lose a tenancy when they enter prison. The most recent national data shows that around six in 10 women do not have a home to go to on release from prison. However, following reforms to probation services, reliable national data on homelessness on release is no longer published. An increased women’s prison population and pressure on social housing means that the true scale of the problem may be even greater.
A lack of stable accommodation makes it harder for women to secure employment or training, arrange benefits, and re-establish contact with children and families. Many women become trapped in an ongoing cycle of offending, struggling to meet their licence conditions, committing further crimes out of critical need, or in some cases returning to custody in a bid to avoid homelessness.
Helping women to retain their tenancy while in custody for short periods is simple and cost-effective but rarely done. Over 60% of sentenced women entering prison are serving six months or less—yet housing benefit is cut off after 13 weeks and eviction is the likely consequence.
Despite this, there are some local authorities with schemes to help women to resettle back in their communities. In Sterling, Denise was sentenced to three years in prison, however to ensure she was able to keep her flat and not accrue rent arrears, the Council sublet her property for temporary homeless accommodation while Denise was in prison. Denise’s belongings were placed in storage by the council and her flat was re-furnished. When released from prison, Denise was able to return back to her flat free of any rental debt and with her belongings.
The recent appointment of David Gauke as Secretary of State for Justice, a former minister at HM Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions; and Dominic Raab as Minister of State for Housing, himself a former justice minister, present an ideal opportunity to work across government to create the much needed links and improve the lives of women and their communities. People leaving the prison gates should be able to focus on turning their lives around, instead of worrying where they will sleep that night.
Jenny Earle is Programme Director, Transforming Lives programme to reduce women’s imprisonment at the Prison Reform Trust