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Prisoners are being released with sleeping bags and wooly hats

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Prisoners leaving with sleeping bags

An investigation into the health of prisoners and ex-prisoners has criticised the practice of releasing men with just a sleeping bag for shelter.

The inquiry by Healthwatch Essex focused on Chelmsford prison. An addiction support service worker referred to as Alison, who works with recently-released men in the community, told the investigators: “A couple of prisoners I’ve met on the day of release have literally turned up and they’ve been given a woolly hat and a sleeping bag by the prison.”

In its conclusions the report noted: “The current instances of prisoners being released with just a sleeping bag and no fixed abode are unacceptable, along with the number of participants in this project who stated that they had no idea how to access avenues of support when leaving prison.”

The report is released as ‘recalls’ to prison initiated by the Probation Service have skyrocketed 25%, despite 75% of these not being a result of offending behaviour. A different report also revealed that the Probation Service fails to adequately deliver its services to 50% of probationers, leading to a higher re-offending rate.

In focus groups and one-on-one interviews, the watchdog spoke with 29 serving convicts at Chelmsford, as well as ex-prisoners attending addiction support groups or homeless centres, and professionals. The fieldwork was completed in 2023. Sharon Westfield De Cortez authored the 39-page study, Hidden Homeless, which was released in August.

Alison told the researchers that some prison leavers were left homeless because they were unable to obtain housing, either from a private landlord or from the council – sometimes due to their previous antisocial behaviour. She added: “It might be that they have to physically sleep rough before they can get help from the outreach Rough Sleeper Team. Which is something that really doesn’t sit well with me when you’ve got a vulnerable person. It must feel hopeless if you’ve just done a whole prison sentence; you must feel to some extent that you’ve done your dues, you’ve done your time. Now you need to be given a chance.”

According to the woman, some prison leavers were in poor health but were turned away by GP surgeries when they sought to register as patients because they did not have an established address. She advocated for inmates leaving prison to be granted cell phones so they could communicate with service providers.

Stephanie, a member of the prison’s resettlement team, described to the researchers the efforts made to assist prisoners at Chelmsford in the 12 weeks before their release, such as obtaining copies of birth certificates, opening bank accounts, and applying for jobs or training.

However, Stephanie added: “There are problems when people are released from prison. Community mental health support is very hard to get and will not work with them if they have active addiction issues. Those who leave prison without an address don’t get follow up health appointments.”

Describing problems with the Government’s CAS-3 initiative to provide temporary accommodation to prison leavers who would otherwise be homeless, Stephanie said: “Many are only told a day or two before release if they are going into temporary accommodation provided by the Probation Service. These premises can also be in areas not known to the individual as it depends upon where there is space, and this can be really daunting. This type of accommodation is limited and only for a maximum of 84 nights.

“A lot of prisoners have no idea how to manage out in the community. Sometimes it would be good for a prison leaver to move to a different area, so they don’t fall back into their old routine and can make a fresh start. However, this is not allowed unless they are moving to a probation approved address, so this is a barrier to some making that positive change.”

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