12 September 2019
Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners’ Children
Homeless or ignored.
By Lynda Goetz
Two items on prisoners in the news this week illustrate the lack of joined-up thinking that so often characterises our public services. This can and does, in many cases, lead to further problems and even ultimately more demands on those services, both financial and in terms of support required.
On Sunday, The Telegraph reported that new figures from The Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) revealed that 1,287 prisoners were released onto the streets to sleep rough in 2018/19, with a further 3,455 ‘homeless’ and another 8,480 at risk of homelessness, by being placed in ‘unsettled’ accommodation. This does not even include the further 29,400 prisoners whose accommodation status on release was ‘unknown’. These figures are an increase on previous figures, although this is apparently largely because of better recording by the MoJ.
On the following day, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on the right to family life; children whose mothers are in prison. This issue was covered in PM on Radio 4 on Monday afternoon (although Evan Davies, in good BBC PC tradition, did keep insisting on the fact that the report was, of course, referring not just to mothers, but to ‘primary carers’).
In cases of prisoners released without having a home to return to and in the case of children whose mothers (or indeed, although more rarely, their primary carers who are not in fact their mothers) are imprisoned, these people are more likely to end up reoffending or offending. As the Chief Probation Officer pointed out, without an address, you cannot register with a GP and it is almost impossible to register for a job. In the case of children whose mothers go to prison, only 9% stay with their fathers and 95% have to move home, often more than once, according to Dr Shona Minson, who talked about this problem on Woman’s Hour earlier in the year. This can lead to insecurities, anger and untold psychological damage. Small wonder then that many of these children themselves end up in prison in later years.
Awareness of these issues has clearly been increasing over the last few years, and attempts have been made to address the problems. In October last year, the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force. This puts the onus on prison and probation services to refer prison leavers to local authorities if they are at risk of homelessness. However, as several charities working in this area have pointed out, this can so often just be a transfer of information rather than any kind of solution. Local authorities can deem those recently released as ‘intentionally’ homeless because they have been in prison. Approved hostels tend to be limited in number and prioritise serious offenders. This can leave those released from shorter sentences more likely to end up sleeping rough. An MoJ spokeswoman said, “Making sure those leaving prison have a roof over their heads helps reduce reoffending which is why we are spending an extra £22 million a year helping offenders stay off the streets.”
The Committee on Human Rights Enquiry, which was published on Monday, was set up as a direct result of Dr Minson’s research and was chaired by Labour MP, Harriet Harman. Dr Minson started her career at the bar involved in care proceedings, which, as she pointed out on Woman’s Hour, are ‘child centred’. It was this professional experience which led to her interest in researching the ‘intersection between family and criminal law’. She was quite shocked to discover the almost total lack of information on the effect on children of maternal imprisonment and the lack of regard for the welfare of children whose mother or primary carer had been imprisoned. Many were not only forced to move home, but to move several times (as family circumstances changed or placements failed to work out). This in turn had a knock-on effect on their education and a substantial number ended up missing large chunks of schooling, as they were not categorised as ‘children in need’ and were therefore given no priority in terms of school places when they moved. The cumulative effect of the sadness and disruption on many of the children resulted in long-term problems including drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems and criminal offending.
The Committee made proposals for urgent reform in four areas, namely: data collection, sentencing, support for children and pregnancy and maternity. It should be mandatory to ascertain whether women going to prison have children and if so their ages; this should be cross-referenced with child benefit data. Working together, the Department of Education and the MoJ need to revise the framework for safeguarding children, taking account of the needs of children when their mother goes to prison, and contact should be premised not on the behaviour of the prisoner but the children’s right to respect for family life. (This may of course need to depend on the nature of the offence committed and in certain circumstances it may not be in the child’s interests to maintain parental contact).
Putting the needs of the child to a central position in all this has led some to question whether any new legislation based on these recommendations could lead to women (or occasionally men) getting a ‘get out of jail free’ card as a result of their status as a parent. This is clearly not the purpose or aim of the proposals, as Dr Minson made clear when talking to Evan Davies on the PM programme on Monday afternoon. That some joined-up thinking on both this and the issue of post-prison homelessness is necessary is quite clear. The initial costs and expenses could, one would hope, be shown to be offset on a longer-term basis by the reduction in issues known to result down-the-line from the current and historical failure to address these matters satisfactorily.