UPDATE: since this article was written, in May 2021 following campaigning by Switchback and others, the government announced that the discharge grant will increase from £46 to £76. Click here to read more.
Sam Boyd, Switchback’s Head of Policy, Impact and Communications, explains the futility of the outdated £46 Discharge Grant and Switchback’s case for a new Discharge Pack. Click here to read our full briefing submitted to the MoJ’s review of the discharge policy in August 2020 [PDF].
The Discharge Grant (the cash grant given to prison-leavers at the gate) has the potential to serve as both a vital lifeline to people being released from prison and a symbol of the kind of society we want to be: offering a new start to citizens returning to our communities having served their sentence.
Yet what does it say that at £46, the discharge grant has not changed in nearly 25 years? And that, when asked, the government is not able to say what the grant is even supposed to be for?
”“As soon as I got out, I was pretty much homeless. The £46 got me to South Woodford. I didn’t buy any food, I was starving the whole day.”Switchback Trainee
People are often forced to choose between buying food, travel, or a hotel for the night. While access to Universal Credit has improved, for prison-leavers without a bank account (half of Switchback Trainees this year), the wait is still several weeks or more.
Switchback Trainees Patrick (left) and L. (right), were both released during the pandemic with just £46, homeless and with no bank account.
As a result, Switchback has to plug this gap by providing Trainees with supermarket vouchers, travelcards and basic smartphones with data. Without these vital lifelines, many Trainees wouldn’t be able to eat or reach vital services and appointments, including probation.
In short, a lack of access to finance is driving prison-leavers straight towards poverty and reoffending.
”“I bought a phone, a bundle with a SIM card – that was the grant pretty much gone.”Switchback Trainee
In July, following campaigning by Switchback and other charities including CJA and Unlock, who have been raising the issue for over a decade, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland agreed to review the discharge grant.
To support that review, Switchback has worked with our Experts by Experience Board to offer a constructive alternative: to replace the Discharge Grant with a new Discharge Pack providing prison-leavers with a real platform for change. Switchback’s briefing submitted to the MoJ to inform this review can be read in full here [PDF].
The Discharge Pack: a real platform for change
Switchback’s EBE Board identified two key principles for change:
- The most important basics people need upon release (aside from housing) are food and hygiene items, travel, a phone and clothing.
- Such a small amount of cash is useless, but too much cash might be spent in the wrong way. A mix of cash, vouchers and items would be the best balance.
Switchback worked with EBE members, Switchback Mentors and partner organisations to calculate the cost of basic essentials based on our collective lived and learned experience. Together we arrived at a four-part Discharge Pack:
- An increased Discharge Grant in cash to ensure people can purchase basic essentials on the day of release, whatever their location.
- New Discharge Vouchers for use at major retailers to ensure provision of food, hygiene and other essential items.
- A travel warrant and one-week travelcard to ensure prison-leavers can get home and reach vital appointments in the crucial first week of release.
- A basic smartphone with data to reach vital services from day one.
This Discharge Pack would ensure every prison-leaver is released with basic essentials needed to begin complying with license conditions, enter work, access key services, and reduce the risk of immediate reoffending. It would also have real symbolic value: reframing the message sent by the system to prison leavers at their pivotal point of release and signifying a shift from ‘offender’ to ‘citizen’.
Meanwhile, by making the Discharge Pack a cross-government initiative, co-funded by MoJ, DWP, MHCLG and others, we could show that reintegration of prisoners is in the national interest and requires commitment from all departments.
Replacing the Discharge Grant with a new Discharge Pack would not solve the problem of reintegration. It will need to be closely aligned with improved access to housing, benefits, banking, ID and 1-to-1 support. But it would at least relieve the immediate hardship imposed by the current system and give people a realistic platform for change.
Above all, it would send a signal that change is possible: both within our crumbling criminal justice system and for people who have served their sentence and deserve a fresh start.