Switchback recently submitted written evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into the future of probation. Sam Boyd, Switchback’s Head of Policy, Impact & Communications, outlines Switchback’s vision for a system that gives all prison-leavers a real chance of success. Click here to view Switchback’s full response to the Committee [PDF].
The disconnect between release from prison and reintegration into society has become more profound than ever. Charities like Switchback have been left to fill the cracks in a system which too often abandons people at the gate with just £46 and nowhere to go. Switchback Trainee Patrick’s experience of being released during the pandemic homeless and with no phone, ID or bank account, as recently featured on BBC News, is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Switchback Trainee speaking to BBC London about being released homeless during the pandemic. Patrick is now in housing and on his way to university. Watch the feature here.
Switchback’s analysis of Ministry of Justice data shows over 6,500 people were released from prison homeless or to ‘unknown circumstances’ during the pandemic – nearly a third of all releases. This year Switchback has also seen record levels of homelessness and lack of basic essentials among prison-leavers. Over two-thirds of Switchback Trainees were released homeless in 2020, over half with no bank account and a third with no ID. Support from probation has, in most cases, become little more than a five-minute phone call every fortnight.
Switchback helps to fill these cracks by providing shopping vouchers, basic smartphones with credit and weekly travelcards alongside our intensive 1-to-1 support and training. This is how Patrick was given a platform to secure housing and a place at university. But the cracks are becoming gaping holes which Switchback cannot – and should not – hope to fill. The system needs to change to give people a real platform to build a stable life away from crime.
‘Reunification’: an opportunity for change?
The government’s reversal of the Transforming Rehabilitation probation reforms and the forthcoming ‘reunification’ of probation into the National Probation Service in 2021 presents a real opportunity for change. But will this opportunity be realised?
The Ministry of Justice’s proposed model includes a welcome shift in language and tone, elevating the role of resettlement support and pledging that probation staff will build ‘positive, collaborative and trusting relationships’ with prison-leavers to support change. Switchback’s 12 years of providing intensive 1-to-1 support through-the-gate shows the effectiveness of this relational approach.
Yet beneath the headlines, many of the problems which mired Transforming Rehabilitation linger on: a highly centralised and transactional system, a lack of resource and capacity, huge caseloads and bureaucratic commissioning frameworks which squeeze out small voluntary sector organisations like Switchback. Moreover, by failing to provide basic essentials like housing and ID, the system risks setting people up to fail from day one. Above all, the lack of any cross-government strategy for resettlement places an unrealistic expectation on probation to address the complex, multi-layered causes of reoffending alone.
MoJ’s plan rightly recognises that relational support is the key to enabling desistance from crime, and that this is “highly-skilled, long term and iterative” work. But the plan provides no framework to enable such work. Without a radical shift in resource, localisation and voluntary sector involvement, there will remain no space to build the skilled, transformative relationships proposed. Organisations like Switchback will continue to do this job in spite of the system, rather than because of it.
To give people a real chance to flourish as active members of society, we need to start with guaranteeing the basic essentials like housing, ID and a bank account. But we also need to move beyond the basics and towards a proper national resettlement strategy: a more local, integrated model of support with a central role for specialist charities. That is how we can create the space for transformative relationships and finally bridge the yawning gap between release and reintegration.