Why Don’t We Just…
bring some sanity to
services for ex-prisoners?

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If you were to google “services and support for people leaving prison”, I suggest you would be impressed by the array of slick corporate websites describing the work of organisations with pithy names such as Motiv8, Back-On-Track and Calico.

Once upon a time a probation hostel would possess a wealth of local knowledge. Not so now

A cursory glance might leave you convinced that ex-cons are very well catered for. You might even believe that there is more help out there than these miscreants deserve. But delve a little deeper. Scratch beneath the surface. Beyond the self-congratulatory plaudits and the glossy websites you will discover a sector that is grossly inefficient, which doesn’t serve its client base well, and which ultimately wastes your hard-earned money.

I was released from prison in January 2020 after a six year sentence. A lot of soul searching had taken place in that time and I realised much about me had to change. The substances I had abused had to go and a whole new attitude was needed to adapt to a much changed set of circumstances. Re-integration into society would be a daunting process but I was up for the challenge and ready to embrace whatever help was out there for me.

I was assigned to an approved premises run by the Probation Service where I was to live for three months while I began to put the component parts of my life back together. Once upon a time a probation hostel would possess a wealth of local knowledge gleaned from the experience of helping hundreds of men find permanent accommodation, employment and the network of support vital for living a crime-free life. Not so now. I discovered that services you would have once found in-house had been outsourced to private organisations. It is a level of complexity that often overwhelms people unused to dealing with the world out there. What I encountered was frustrating, confusing and uncoordinated. I discovered a plethora of catchily named companies all vying for our services and effectively touting for business, all competing for money from the same funding pot.

We were informed one day that a representative from one particular organisation would be coming to offer support for moving on. Nobody was forced to attend but I was keen to engage and had an initial interview. The representative was friendly and the help on offer seemed good. I duly signed up and was told I would have to attend a further interview in a few weeks’ time. Meanwhile the clock was ticking down on my time in the hostel – time I had to use productively to sort out immediate issues such as accommodation, an addiction support network and employment.

About two weeks later another representative from the same organisation arrived and I was subject to a lengthy interview where I had to disclose much of my life history including, of course, my criminal record. I was informed that I would need to prove my identity, a requirement I found baffling as the hostel and Probation Service had copious records confirming who I was. This was deemed insufficient and I would have to provide a driving licence, passport or birth certificate. Having none of these – a situation common for those who have led chaotic lives and have spent years in prison – I was informed that the organisation would apply for a copy birth certificate and then I would be registered. Meanwhile the clock continued ticking.

Weeks went by while I waited. There was little or no support from the hostel or the Probation Service with help finding accommodation. To be fair to both, this is not currently their remit. As time drew near to my leaving date I was offered shared accommodation in Rochdale, more than likely with someone else with the same addiction issues as me – a certain recipe for disaster. I politely but firmly declined the offer. Miraculously, through my own efforts, (and perhaps divine intervention) I secured private accommodation and moved into my new home still awaiting a confirmed referral from the company I had signed up with.

What I have experienced is companies obsessed with growth rather than the individuals in their care

Many weeks later it confirmed receipt of the elusive birth certificate but now there was another problem: I had inconveniently moved into an area not normally covered by it, so my referral was transferred to a different organisation. My initial experience with this new company was good. I was assigned a support worker who was prompt, reliable and very positive. Lockdown had just begun so our sessions were conducted by phone. We agreed a plan that included the provision of a monthly bus pass, vital for my progress and the maintenance of good mental health. I also needed the ability to attend AA meetings up to eight miles away from my home to continue to address my addiction issues. Then my support worker moved on and I was assigned another whose attitude was very different. He seemed to take exception to the provision of the bus pass, questioning my motives and the cost. Every month I had to argue my case for its provision, a situation I found stressful and destabilising. In the meantime, I continued with my plans for self-employment and to develop my talent for creative writing. I was advised to register as self-employed and as soon as I did the company deemed I was an “outcome” and promptly withdrew support. No doubt I am flagged up as another success story on its website. The tragic irony is that, having never run my own business before, this was the time I needed support the most.

I am truly grateful for any help I did receive and I don’t believe the world owes me a living. However, I do believe that the rehabilitation of ex-offenders is a crucial issue both to ex-offenders and to society at large. What I have experienced is a system that is disjointed and companies obsessed with the attainment of funding and the growth of their “business” rather than the complex needs of the individuals in their care. Some organisations have specific expertise, say in finding employment, but not in others like housing. The problem is once you’ve signed up to one you can’t seek help from another. It is a bewildering lottery to a client base that too often withdraws from engagement. Currently there is no incentive for organisations to work together because they are all in the same bear pit competing for the same funding. There are no doubt many good individuals working in the sector but their vocation is currently being tarnished by putting the gilded cart of funding before the plodding horse of appropriate and co-ordinated support.

It is time for a more considered approach that will give society more bang for its buck. These organisations need to be given licence to work with each other without the fear of losing out on funding. They should also be working in tandem with approved premises and the Probation Service, which know their clients’ complex problems in the critical period of transition from prison to a settled way of life. And they shouldn’t be using the funding on offer primarily for the exponential growth of their organisation.

And why should you care?

In my three months at the probation hostel I lost count of the number of times I saw men being bundled into the back of police vans to be returned to prison. There would have been some flashpoint that made that return inevitable but ultimately the reason they were returning was because they could not cope without adequate support in a confusing system massively weighted against them. The bill for that return to custody is being paid, dear reader, by you. And those same people will be released back into society at a later date to begin the merry go round all over again. There has to be a better way!

Simon is a poet and creative writer who lives in Lancashire. His name has been changed

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