Helping prisoners make a new start during COVID-19
Leaving custody can be daunting at the best of time – leaving custody during a pandemic can add another level of anxiety. Director of Resettlement Services for Prison Services Gina Reilly explains how the Resettlement Team has been supporting men leaving custody during the pandemic to give them the best possible start to their new lives.
The MK College Resettlement team has been working at the forefront of supporting our service users as they enter custody and in their last 12 weeks of their sentences. In the Thames Valley prisons, we have provided over 3000 action plans for men in custody and developed a range of resources and factsheets that are specific to their release areas.
We do not just provide help with education, training and employment issues, which you would normally associate with MK College. We are also able to support across a range of pathways including finance, benefit advice and debt, as well as substance misuse, health, family relationships and domestic violence and sex working. However, the key pressure point for us all has been helping with housing for men and effective communication when they are released from custody.
Access to housing has been a constant issue for men leaving prison, as they can be perceived to have made themselves intentionally homeless by committing crime and are therefore not high on the list for Local Authorities unless they have a complex need or healthcare issue.
Since special measures were introduced in June 2020, the local providers and Thames Valley Community Rehabilitation Company, National Probation Service, Local Councils, Police and Crime Commissioners offices have formed a Homeless Prevention Team (HPT) which brings cases to a regional group for assistance. Through this new channel, our team have prepared the referrals and advocated for over 120 men get access to temporary accommodation either in hotels or housing associations.
This has significantly helped them settle for the first time in years on release and make a pause in the “revolving door” of offending and enable them to stabilise their benefit status. For a lot of prisoners, the delay between release and benefits claims being established means that they are recalled before any claim can be fully completed.
We have several heart-warming cases of men who have not reoffended for the first time in years and have spent over 4 months out of custody, which for some is the start of a completely different way of life.
Another adaption has been that prisoners are required to be contactable on release and the Resettlement Service was given access to very simple mobile phones. During the pandemic over 200 simple phones have been issued to prisoners on release, enabling them to have contact with their Responsible Officers and have a number where they can be contacted by all support services working with them.
These have been tough times for everyone, and we are pleased that some of the new approaches have made a positive impact on the day-to-day life of our service users and given them a chance to start again.