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  • Danny Shaw

Street talk




The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) headline on its website looks impressive: 'Leading UK business bosses help prison leavers get work in crime-cutting drive'.


A press release, below the headline, sets out details of new Employment Advisory Boards in jails across England and Wales to help place inmates into jobs. They are badly needed: six weeks after leaving custody only 8% of former prisoners are in PAYE employment.


What the MoJ hasn't trumpeted, however, is a 44-page document that has been sent to prisons, titled, 'Prepare for your future: Empower yourself for release'. I have seen a copy - and some of the advice it contains is anything but "empowering".


Marking territory


A section headed 'Accommodation' includes "practical tips" for prisoners who may end up homeless.


"Finding somewhere to sleep or rest can often be one of the biggest worries," it says. "Sometimes you can find shelter from abandoned buildings...there might also be bridges."


It adds that when "picking a building or outside spot" safety is important. "Try and sleep near an exit," it suggests.


The manual advises released prisoners bedding down on the streets to stay in a "group" as they are "less likely to be bothered" by thieves and people out to cause harm.


But it warns: "You do need to be careful when finding other homeless people, as they may mark their territory and there could be risks in getting involved in any group."


Newspapers and cardboard


There are also "a few tips" to stay warm, such as wearing layers, sleeping in tents - and using newspapers and cardboard.


"You can put newspaper between layers of clothing to keep warm. Newspaper can also be used as shelter, blankets, pillows, toilet paper and fuel for a fire.


"If you can find cardboard, you can put this under you, between the cold ground to provide a bit of cushion and warmth," the document says.


Prisoners are also told how to "stay clean without a shower and soap" by using wet wipes and a reusable cloth, though the advice says, "If you look and feel clean, you might find it easier to use toilets in restaurants or department stores."


Another suggestion for maintaining cleanliness is baking soda. "It's one of the cheapest items for personal hygiene that's versatile. You can mix it with water, and it can be used for soap, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and more."


'Smell like you are not homeless'


The document also offers guidance on how homeless prisoners can obtain and store food as they "might not be able to buy food and finding left-over food on the streets may not always work".


And, finally, it recommends that they might find it "easier to blend in" with the population.


"This may allow you to have access into shops, potential work opportunities and avoid conflict on the streets. If you look normal, act and smell like you are not homeless, people are more likely to be friendly towards you."


'Failure'


Some may view the advice in the document as invaluable given that over half of inmates do not have settled accommodation on release.


MoJ figures for 2020-21 show that one in eight former prisoners ended up homeless or sleeping rough - that's about 6,400 in one 12-month period.


But the former chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, says it was "wrong" to draw up the guidance.


"A prisoner leaving prison homeless is a failure, and providing advice about what someone should do in that situation does not mean a box can be ticked in any accommodation process," he says.


"In any case, prisons are not the best people to provide advice of this kind. If a failure like this does occur, the person concerned would be better directed to a homelessness agency," adds Hardwick, who was in charge of the homeless charity, Centrepoint, for nine years.


Just a draft


The 'Prepare for your future' guide, which was "co-produced by people with lived experience", does include phone numbers and contact details of support organisations. There is also information about health, employment, finances and substance misuse, and it is all written in a style which is easy to follow.


But the section for those who may be homeless is controversial - because of its candour. Although it says the aim is to help ex-offenders find accommodation - “we want you to have the best possible start" - the document acknowledges that it may not be possible. “The truth is that there is not enough housing for everyone and therefore there is a risk you could be released with nowhere to live."


When I first contacted the MoJ, which is responsible for prisons across England and Wales, it said the document was a draft copy which had not been sent out to jails. After I pointed out that the document had been distributed to prisons, the department said that it had been delivered only during the drafting process and had not been issued to prisoners. It said a final version had been produced which does not include practical tips for those who have to live on the streets.


Nevertheless, I find it rather odd, to say the least, that a draft document for prisoners (which doesn't say that it is a draft) is circulated to prisons before it is ready to be given to prisoners. Without conducting an audit of every single establishment, I don't think anyone can be sure that the original document did not find its way into prisoners' hands.


Bleak reality


There is much good work taking place in the MoJ to help prisoners turn their lives around when they are let out of jail. The 'White Paper' on prisons strategy, published in December, contains a number of excellent proposals, such as resettlement 'passports', ending releases on Fridays, and increasing the number of housing specialists and temporary facilities. The opening of the new prison in Northamptonshire, HMP Five Wells, with 24 workshops to equip prisoners with job skills, is another sign of a commitment to rehabilitation.


The department tells me it is planing to spend £200 million each year to reduce reoffending and improve access to accommodation and says measures it has put in place led to a 30% reduction in homeless prison leavers in 2020-21. Those 12 months were exceptional, of course, because overall prisoner numbers fell substantially and emergency steps had to be taken to deal with the pandemic. Greater tests will come in the years ahead as the jail population increases.


The main point, however, is that the practical tips on homelessness in the 'Prepare for your future' document expose the bleak reality facing those who are trying to rebuild their lives when they walk out of the prison gates. Whatever help ex-prisoners receive in other respects, without secure and settled accommodation it will be a struggle for them to avoid going back to their old ways. And further offending means more victims of crime.


The Ministry of Justice has a "vision" that no one who is under probation supervision should be let out of prison homeless. That is no more than an aspiration - as 'Prepare for your future' demonstrates so clearly.



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