The coalition government is promising 'a revolution in the way we manage offenders' with a radical overhaul of post-release provision designed to drive down the rate of reoffending.
The revolving door of recidivism, which sees almost half of those released from prison reoffending within 12 months, is an expense society can little afford and any attempt to address the crisis should be welcomed.
Key to the government's proposals set out in 'Transforming Rehabilitation', released last month, is the outsourcing of the majority of rehabilitation work to be delivered by the private and voluntary sector organisations. The government says it wants these new providers to tackle the root causes of reoffending;
Providing mentors and signposting to services aimed at employment, accommodation, training and tackling addiction, to help offenders turn their lives around. We will encourage providers to harness local expertise through working with local and specialist voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations.
Having worked in the community sector, meeting offenders at the prison gate and supporting them as they reintegrate into society, I have seen first hand the value of this work and welcome any additional support to ex-offenders. In particular, the government's proposal to extend provision to those finishing short sentences- who have the highest reconviction rates but currently get no support on release- is vital and long overdue.
But I am sceptical that mentoring and signposting alone can tackle the causes of reoffending. In the course of my own mentoring work, I've often been left frustrated and angry by the institutional hurdles that block offenders' progress. Indeed, at times I've felt just as 'lost in the system' as the people I'm trying to help.
For illustrative purposes I'd like to share 'Adam's' story:
I first met Adam in a London prison in 2011. He was coming to the end of long sentence for violent crime but rather than looking forward to his release he was sick with worry. Adam's background was far from atypical; his mother was an alcoholic and he had spent most of his childhood in care. By his late teens he'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had picked up a heroin addiction which meant he was only ever out of prison for a couple of months at a time. By the age of forty he had spent more than half of his life locked up.
After maintaining on Subutex for two years in prison, Adam was desperate to sort his life out on release and eventually enter rehab. With no home to go to however, Adam was afraid he'd end up in a hostel with other drug users, fall back into his old chaotic lifestyle and wind up back in prison. After much negotiating with Adam's probation officer, it was agreed that on release he would be transferred outside the London area to live with his sister in Cornwall. This was a brilliant outcome which would mean Adam would be in a better environment to address his addiction and begin rebuilding his life.
And this is where Adam's rehabilitation saga began.
Two days before Adam was due to be released a decision was made by the local police and probation service in Cornwall that he was too high risk to be released to their area and the transfer request was refused. This meant that Adam would be released to his old stomping ground in Lambeth and last minute accommodation would have to be found. On the day he was released Adam was told to sign a six-month contract for a private-rented bedsit he hadn't even seen. Had he not done so, he would have been left homeless for the night and in breach of his licence due to having no address.
The bedsit turned out to be a filthy box room in a small Victorian terraced house that had been converted into a multi-occupancy-dwelling of six flats. The other residents were of a similar background to Adam; ex-offenders and addicts, living there as other private landlords wouldn't have touched them with a bargepole. On the first day Adam found used needles on the communal stairs and a fortnight later his door was kicked in while he was at the shops and his meagre possessions looted.
Registering with a surgery on release, Adam's new doctor disputed the medication he had been prescribed in prison for his bipolar disorder and his already stressed state was made worse by the withdrawal of drugs he had become dependent on. Worse, he had to wait a month before finally being referred to the Community Mental Health Team he had been told would be working with him as soon as he got out of prison.
Any time he stepped out of the front door Adam was liable to bump into an old friend or foe. He'd grown up in Lambeth, it was where he'd committed his crimes and scored his heroin and the temptation to throw in the towel and drift back into the chaos was ever present.
As Adam's support worker I repeatedly told his probation officer that Adam was doomed to fail in this context but with a six months contract signed there was no way for him to move without losing the tenancy deposit that had been paid for with a crisis loan. Without getting the deposit back he'd have no way of securing another tenancy.
But I was wrong about Adam. He didn't reoffend and he didn't relapse and despite bouts of despair and frustration he kept his head down and the weeks ticked by. On one occasion he and his girlfriend were viciously attacked in the street by an old associate, resulting in his girlfriend's hospitalisation. Still, Adam resisted the temptation to retaliate and left the matter to the police.
As the end of Adam's tenancy approached I worked hard with his probation officer to get him moved out of the area. After much negotiating it was agreed that having demonstrated good behaviour for six months, Adam would be allowed to transfer his licence to Southampton, where he had some family, and make a fresh start there.
Then, the night before the move with everything arranged I got a call from Adam's probation officer. She told me that the transfer, which she had assumed was a fait accompli, had been refused by Southampton probation. She was at a loss as to why, as Adam was no longer classified as high risk, but the decision was final. I was stumped. The deposit had already been paid to the new landlord in Southampton and Adam had to be out of his current flat the next morning; new residents were due to move in. No longer was this a case of a deposit being lost; Adam would be left on the streets if he couldn't move to Southampton. I said all this to Adam's probation officer and asked what he should do; he had no alternate accommodation in London; where was he going to go tomorrow? She had no answers and confirmed that if Adam went to Southampton he'd be in breach of his licence and would be recalled. If he stayed, homeless, in London he'd be in breach due to being 'intentionally homeless' with no address and would also be recalled to prison.
I felt sick as I hung up the phone. Through my interfering I'd made matters worse for Adam than if I'd just left him where he was. When I called Adam he was wretched with despair. He was going back to prison. There had been no point him even trying.
Not knowing what to do I called Adam's probation officer back and asked to speak to her manager; desperately demanding that this just could not be right. How could a man who had done everything possible to stay on track be returned to prison through no fault of his own?
Finally, on the morning of the move the probation reached a compromise. Adam would be allowed to move to Southampton and be supervised by local probation officers but would remain the responsibility of Lambeth probation. My relief was indescribable.
Things haven't been plain sailing for Adam since the move; there were again complications with his medication and difficulties with his new landlord. Having been out of prison for over a year though, Adam's prospects of living a normal life on the right side of the law look good.
I'm sharing Adam's story because it contains many of the all too common crisis points that can trip up ex-offenders. Nothing that happened to Adam was unusual; what was unusual was that he stuck it out. With the majority of offenders I've worked with it's only taken one cock-up in the crucial first few months post-release to lead to a recall to prison.
As the government's report rightly points out, many offenders have led chaotic lives marked by abuse, institutional care, substance misuse and mental illness. When troubled and chaotic people are released into a bureaucratic rehabilitation system which at times can seem equally as chaotic, individual's chances of success are slim.
And while the focus on changing the behaviour of offenders in 'transforming rehabilitation' is important, equally important is tackling the criminogenic pressures created by environments blighted by poverty, substance misuse and violence. Real investment is the only thing that can change these environments. You can't signpost people to decent housing, services and jobs if they don't exist.
Mentors can only work if the system they help offenders navigate works. Support and guidance are of limited use if the fundamentals of safe housing, uninterrupted medical care and logical case planning are missing.