Why is the criminal justice system making women homeless?

Sixty per cent of female offenders become homeless when they're released from prison – and a serious failing in the system puts them in a catch-22 situation

The prison system is in ‘meltdown’, with unrest and riots this summer the ugly face of a creaking system. Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who made the meltdown claim two weeks ago, added that signs of improvement are hard to find. It’s not just on the inside that the system is failing, recent figures show the majority of female offenders – a staggering 60 per cent – become homeless when they’re released.

The same percentage of reoffenders said they wouldn’t have felt forced to commit other crimes had they found a suitable home of their own. “It’s just as one woman said to us, ‘Without a roof over your head you haven’t got a hope’,” explains Jenny Earle, director of reducing women’s imprisonment at the Prison Reform Trust. “We’re still in a situation where prisons discharge women at the end of their sentences without anywhere to go.”

So why are so many female offenders left without a home?

The gaps in provision are obvious to Earle and other campaigners and, frustratingly for those fighting to better the system, are exactly the same as a decade ago when the Commonweal Housing charity piloted the Re-Unite project in south London.

Formed in 2003, the privately funded housing charity has spent over £6m on existing housing stock to support their projects, which set out to help women leaving prison to gain access to their children, which itself often relied on the provision of suitable housing. Around 100 mothers and 200 children were supported throughout the 10 years, however the initial recommendations made by
the charity remain overlooked by a decade of apparent reform.

They’re unable to be reunited with their children due to a lack of housing – but are not considered a homelessness priority without children

“We identified a serious failing in the criminal justice system,” says Edward Lowe of Commonweal Housing. “Women were left in a catch-22 situation. They were unable to be reunited with their own children due to lack of housing when they finished their sentence. However, when they presented as homeless at local housing authorities, they weren’t considered to be a priority without children, with some even considered to have made themselves intentionally homeless.”

A definition of homelessness isn’t set across Britain, with each local authority able to define their own parameters. Evidence points to many women being turned away from emergency housing services because they’re seen as being ‘intentionally homeless’, having known that committing a crime could lead to the loss of their home.

“Re-Unite highlighted an area of social injustice which simply shouldn’t exist,” Lowe adds. “It is a model which picks up the pieces left by the failings in the criminal justice system. It exposed the ongoing flaws in the housing system as it continues to fail those in need of the stability housing provides.

“The project also laid bare a manifestation of poverty and its damning impact on families, with many of the mothers in the Re-Unite programme forced to offend through poverty. The programme highlighted some serious failings within the system as so many of those Re-Unite supported shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place.

“Unfortunately many of the injustices facing mothers in the criminal justice system highlighted through Re-Unite continue to exist. Its work serves to further expose a nationwide housing problem – a huge number of people living in abject poverty.”

The overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of women in custody are there on a short sentence (less than 12 months) for non-violent crimes, like shoplifting and petty theft. Around 15 per cent were already homeless before serving their sentence.

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Financially, the odds are stacked against female offenders from the outset. The poverty cycle leads many to offend initially. Housing benefits being cut after 13 weeks in custody means not only a loss of home, but a likely mountain of rent arrears on release. Universal credit applications are available online only – being in prison removes access to that.

There are 12 women’s prisons in England and one in Scotland (where prisons are a devolved issue) – none in Wales. On average, women are imprisoned 64 miles away from home, so they often have difficulty maintaining a local connection – a common prerequisite for getting local authority housing. The geographical difficulties of fewer prisons spread over a broader area means case workers are left with a drastic increase in travel time – and offenders are often left without the support of family and friends, recognised as an integral part in rehabilitation.

With growing figures and a clear solution, why is nobody listening?

“There’s a definite sense of fragmentation when it comes to assigning responsibility to dealing with the housing needs of women prisoners,” Earle says. “It’s a situation that requires some national leadership and some joined-up thinking between national and local government. I think the steps to find a solution are well known, but it’s making that happen that’s the problem.”

Touted as a revolutionary way of managing offenders, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme tabled by the coalition government in 2010 has actually made things worse. The programme was rolled out under the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 and saw further privatisation of prisons – there are currently 14 privately run institutions in the UK – as well as major outsourcing under which half of the country’s rehabilitation services were given to eight companies to the tune of £3.7bn and the loss of 8,000 highly skilled jobs.

The move, with a high turnover of staff, less autonomy and a laden workload, has left many caseworkers struggling, and as found in a report by employment researcher Professor Gill Kirton of Queen Mary University of London, “the de-professionalisation was almost immediate”. A 25 per cent rise in the number of serious offences committed by offenders on probation since these changes illustrates the failings to the most vulnerable from the 21 private probation services across the country.

Despite evidence that projects like Re-Unite work, they’ve found it difficult to introduce the programme elsewhere with the barriers thrown up by the changes.

Women in prisons – the numbers

“The Transforming Rehabilitation programme has certainly impacted on our ability to replicate the Re-Unite project elsewhere,” says Lowe. “It’s inhibited the funding available for vital community services and for ourselves and so many others, stemmed our access to offenders within prison.

“When an offender is serving a sentence, in-reach support is so important, and the lack of it is having a serious knock-on effect on our ability to help those in need of it most. It’s been detrimental to so many types of in-reach service, including those offered through Re-Unite.”

How do we break the cycle?

Organisations like the Prison Reform Trust are advocates for prison as a last resort. While the law requires that prison should only be imposed when a lesser sanction can’t be justified, the Trust encourages magistrates to remember the impact of unnecessarily strict sentences on children and families. Social enterprises in prisons are also now more commonplace than ever before. Their benefits are many; not only can they teach offenders a skill, but these skills are integral to their chances of successful release and curbing reoffending rates.

Social enterprises in prisons are also now more commonplace than ever before. Their benefits are many

Last week, we featured The Clink Charity, just one fantastic social enterprise set to revolutionise the prison system by leading the way in offering offenders a second chance. Using the power of food, the programme has seen a 41 per cent reduction in reoffending from its participants.

Organisations including social enterprises and the government could also step in before repeat offenders are given custodial sentences, giving people an escape route before they are lost in the downward spiral of the prison system.