Last year some 72,000 people left prison in England and Wales. Most prisoners have at least one mental health difficulty and many have a complex set of needs. High rates of reoffending have been a policy concern for years, and yet support at the critical time before and after release is often minimal. A report last year found that 10% of people were homeless on the day of release from prison, and that just 6% had been supported into employment by prison or probation services. And few get access to ongoing mental health support when they are released.
Centre for Mental Health embarked in 2014 on an ambitious pilot programme to offer prisoners with mental health difficulties support to get paid work when they were released. We worked with eight prisons in the West Midlands to provide support for prisoners in contact with mental health services to get specialist employment support before and after release as well as mentoring and help with basic needs such as money and accommodation.
Through the project, we were able to help more than a third of the people we worked with to find paid employment: considerably more than would be the case in normal circumstances. And for many, this was in the face of some major challenges. The project coincidentally started at the same time as the biggest upheaval in probation services for many decades, Transforming Rehabilitation. This made communication and liaison with probation services (a critical partner) extremely difficult. Often probation services seemed quite distant and remote, with sometimes little or no contact being made with the person being released. A key concern was the lack of mental health support for people being released from prison: whilst we received 63 referrals from prison mental health services, only nine people were accepted onto community mental health team caseloads. This was a group with complex needs, but the vast majority of them received no mental health support on leaving prison.
Release from prison presents a critical opportunity for health, employment and criminal justice services to help people reimagine their lives after prison and find stability, fulfillment, and better wellbeing. As the changes in probation services begin to settle, there is now an opportunity to provide vital support to break the vicious cycle of reoffending. And our work demonstrates that there is hope of a life after prison and positive contribution to society – with the right support. Now it remains to the decision makers to choose to look past the labels people are given and do what works to change lives.
For that, we need to see some significant changes at every level of the system. The people we supported needed help not just with health and employment but with housing and many of life’s basic needs. Our approach, of offering specialist employment support with mentoring and help with the practicalities of life outside prison must become the norm, not the exception. And this help should begin while people are in prison to prepare them for release.
It is also essential that anyone in prison who receives support from mental health services is linked with effective care outside. Primary and community mental health services need to be ready to accept people referred to them from prison and to form links with probation services to provide consistent and effective help.
The Government recently announced plans to enhance employment and training opportunities for people leaving prison by establishing a New Futures Network and giving Governors greater control over the education, training and work services they provide. This is a welcome step forward. Our pilot programme shows that better support can make a difference to prisoners with mental health problems – many of whom have been too often sidelined by prison vocational services. It is crucial that employment support is offered alongside practical and emotional help and that access to support is never made a condition of benefit payments for those with mental health difficulties.