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Opinion

Homelessness is holding back prison leavers when they get a second chance

While so many women are released from prison with nowhere to go, ministers should shift their focus away from putting more people behind bars

Two thirds of people being released from Europe’s largest women’s prison – HMP Bronzefield – are falling straight into homelessness, according to a new report.

Many women told inspectors they would rather stay behind bars than face the “uncertainties of freedom”.

Campbell Robb, chief executive for social justice charity Nacro, writes in response to the report and sets out why government action could cut reoffending – and save lives.

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This week’s inspection report of HMP Bronzefield made for shocking reading. In it, Chief Prison Inspector Charlie Taylor highlighted the scale of homelessness amongst those leaving the prison.

Taylor made a powerful case for more stable, safe accommodation. He explained that basic housing provisions are vital to prevent reoffending. “Many women” he said, “are liable to have mental health relapses, return to substance misuse and become involved in crime on release… repeating the cycle.”

Through our frontline work – which includes – supporting those leaving prison, we see first-hand how precarious housing can lead to tragic outcomes. Having nowhere to live holds people back in ways many take for granted. For example, without a fixed address, it becomes tough to access support, get a job, or move on with life.

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Meanwhile we see that those leaving prison with a home to go to face brighter futures. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that stable housing cuts the chances of reoffending by half.

Many prison leavers still struggle to access the accommodation they need to rebuild their lives. Only last week, new figures revealed that one in 10 prison leavers were expected to be homeless after release, with a postcode lottery dictating peoples’ chances at a fresh start. In the East Midlands, there was a 29 per cent rise in prison-leaver homelessness compared to a decrease in regions such as the West Midlands (four per cent) and North East (eight per cent).

Every person who leaves prison homeless faces avoidable challenges in their rehabilitation journey, such as women in unstable housing who are likely to face vulnerabilities specific to their gender. Equally, given the high number of woman prison leavers who are survivors of domestic abuse, it is vital that they have control over their living situations before leaving prison. The prospect of returning to a potentially abusive home is commonplace.

The sometimes mixed-gender housing set-ups, such as hostels, are unsuitable foundations for a fresh start.

Despite these stark figures, the UK is making some progress. Through the Cell, Street, Repeat campaign, Nacro brought together more than twenty leading names – including Shelter and the Prison Reform Trust – to call for guaranteed accommodation for all prison leavers. The government later committed to funding temporary accommodation for all prison leavers, at risk of homelessness, for a period of 12 weeks.

But it is important to recognise that short-term accommodation is a sticking plaster – not the solution. It is vital that longer-term housing is made available and that there are clear move-on pathways for those in temporary housing.

These steps are crucial to truly combat, rather than delay, homelessness.

The statistics only reveal part of the problem. Inspectors found that, of 507 women released from HMP Bronzefield in a six-month period, 72 (14 per cent) were expected to be homeless upon departure. This is likely the tip of the iceberg, as it does not capture those leaving prison into unstable accommodation such as sleeping on friends’ sofas or staying in hostels.

It is vital that, even when the government’s housing promise comes into force, we continue to monitor the shadow population who face all the barriers of homelessness but are not represented in official figures.

A vast majority of women in custody are locked up for non-violent crime (80 per cent), raising serious questions around why these women are in prison in the first place. At the very time when local authorities are most struggling to house people who need fresh starts, it is wrong for the government to plough ahead with plans to build 500 new women’s prison places.

No modern government should harbour ambitions to imprison more people, when that same resource could play such a vital role in preventing offending in the first place.

Campbell Rob is chief executive of Nacro.

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