Offenders recently freed from prison are being pushed into poverty and tempted back into a life of crime due to a delay in receiving benefits, HuffPost UK has been told.
Prisoners cannot currently make a claim for the new Universal Credit benefit while they are in jail and have to wait until after they are released.
But with around a five-week wait to receive money, campaigners warn the system is “setting people up to fail” at their most vulnerable moment, and claim former offenders may be tempted back into criminal behaviour to support themselves.
Although the switchover for existing benefits claimants is being slowly phased in, those who are new to benefits or have experienced a change in circumstances are going straight on Universal Credit.
Some offenders say they don’t understand the system, which is administered online, and are struggling to survive while they wait for payment.
All prisoners in the UK are issued with a £46 discharge grant on release. But this figure has not changed for at least 15 years.
HuffPost UK spent two days at the foodbank in Preston where staff revealed increasing numbers of former prisoners are coming to them in need.
Major Alex Cadogan, local leader of the Salvation Army, said: “Once people are released from custody, they have to make a Universal Credit claim and that takes time.
‘I Fear I’ll End Up Back In Jail’
William Appleton is 63 and has had many run-ins with the law but was determined to have a fresh start on his recent release.
However, as he admitted to HuffPost UK whilst waiting to receive a food parcel from the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston, he fears he will end up back in jail.
Appleton, from Preston, was released from prison a few weeks ago. He told us: “I have been in and out of prison all my life for theft.
“When I came out this time, I was told about Universal Credit but still don’t know how it works.
“They’re basically saying I can’t get any help for five to six weeks.
“Everything has to be done online and I don’t even know how to send a text.
“I have many health issues and have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, alcohol dependency and bladder cancer and was signed off indefinitely.
“My argument is that before I went into custody, they had got all my records and everything they needed to know. Why can’t they get all my information and update it on to my new Universal Credit?
“But as far as they are concerned, I am a new person. So I have to go back to my doctor and start from day one.
“I wanted a fresh start free from crime this time. But I came out of jail with just £46 and am struggling so had to go to a food bank so I could eat.
“I feel with this Universal Credit, they are setting me up to fail and I feel I’m going to end up back in prison.”
Cadogan said: “I know the prison service is working really hard to get people to rehabilitate and get to a point where they are ready and able for a return into the community.
“If those released from custody are having to wait for money to live on, it is difficult for them to rehabilitate and people may be tempted to re-offend in order to survive.”
Nicola Hawkes, foodbank co-ordinator at South Liverpool Foodbank, said: “We do see people recently released from prison coming to us.
“I remember one gentleman coming in who had been recently released and he hadn’t eaten for two days.
“He opened a can of corned beef from his food parcel right in front of us and started eating it.
“At the moment, we are only just into Universal Credit in our area and are concerned about anything which might impact on our numbers.”
“He opened a can of corned beef from his food parcel right in front of us and started eating it”
In Manchester, Amy Archie, project manager at the central foodbank there, said they have also seen recently-released offenders who are waiting for their Universal Credit to come through.
“They face a five weeks waiting period or are given advance payments which are taken out when they do receive their payment,” she said.
“When people are trying to get back on their feet and reintegrate back into society, this not helpful and depending on their circumstances, it is going to put more pressure on them.
“If someone is desperate and struggling to feed themselves or their family, this is not going to help them keep away from crime,” Archie said.
‘They Are Setting People Up To Fail’
“There is a window of opportunity on release from prison for people to move away from crime,” says Helen Berresford, director of external engagement at Nacro, a national charity helping disadvantaged people. But one of the big challenges they see for recently-released offenders is access to immediate financial support.
“All prisoners are given a £46 discharge grant on release. But this figure has not changed for at least 15 years and it does not go far at all.
“If the basic building blocks are not in place, people can return to familiar ways especially if they need food and money to survive.
“People need to have financial resource on day one of release otherwise they are being set up to fail.
“If they don’t have sufficient money or a home, it is really hard for people to move away from crime.”
The Department For Work and Pensions confirmed to HuffPost UK that prisoners cannot make a claim for Universal Credit while they are in prison and have to wait until release.
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “Work Coaches provide support to prisoners prior to their release to make their claim to benefits.
“This includes support in gathering all the details and documentation needed to make their Universal Credit claim and booking an appointment at the local job centre on the day of release so they can access support, including applying for advance payments of up to 100 per cent immediately if needed.
“We are constantly exploring how we can improve the support for claimants and prison leavers, including a wider national partnership to support more prisoners into employment across England and Wales.”