This blog by Sam Boyd, Switchback’s Policy & Impact Manager, was originally published on criminaljusticealliance.org
After 36 months in prison, 24-year old George was released three days before Christmas with nowhere to live. His probation officer advised that the local council would be able to find him accommodation, but on arrival at the council office it was closed for the holidays. With the support of the Switchback Mentor he had met in prison, George found accommodation in a B&B for a few nights.
But returning after to the council office, he was told he couldn’t be given housing support because he wasn’t registered for Universal Credit. Yet to register, he’d need a home address which, on account of being homeless, he didn’t have. No one could suggest a clear way forward.
These are the kind of challenges faced by too many young people leaving prison and trying to do the right thing. Most don’t want to return to crime – a Ministry of Justice survey found that 97 per cent of prisoners want to stop offending – yet the journey to a different life is fraught with Kafkaesque scenarios like the one faced by George. In his case, George ended up sofa-surfing at the homes of friends involved in exactly the criminal lifestyle he was trying to escape.
George’s resilience and determination meant that, in spite of having no money and no home, he resisted returning to old habits. He also had someone to turn to in Monique – one of Switchback’s full-time, highly skilled Mentors – with whom he’d built a trusting relationship before release. As a result, he now has support not only to navigate the housing and benefits system, but to overcome temptations of returning to crime and stay true to his desire to change.
Many don’t get that lifeline. It’s nearly five years since the launch of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR), the government’s probation reforms which promised ‘real continuity between custody and community’ for prisoners. (Switchback’s recent submission to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into TR can be read here.)
Yet genuine through-the-gate support remains elusive, and so often is only offered by voluntary organisations like Switchback. It’s no great surprise that almost half of prison leavers are reconvicted within a year.
In Switchback’s experience, strong relationships built up over time are central to enabling people leaving prison to take control of their lives and stick to their commitment to do things differently. Yet genuine human connections are seldom found in a system defined by bureaucratic complexity and depleted resources.
The government’s plans for prison officers to become ‘key workers’ responsible for mentoring prisoners represents a welcome recognition of the need for a more relational approach. But to create real change, this needs to mark the beginning of a far deeper cultural shift in that direction. Then George and others like him will have a real chance to succeed.