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From prison cell to homeless, how a new law will give former convicts a better chance at turning their lives around

With the clock ticking until the weekend, former convicts can go from their prison cell to sleeping on the street. A newly passed law will will give them more time to find a place to stay

A prisoner at Perth prison in Scotland decorates a room used for discussions about health and wellbeing. Image: Community Justice Scotland/Flickr

When Jay Harrison* was released from prison it was a Friday morning. But he had nowhere to go. 

“I was homeless on my release and they just said ‘off you go’,” he told The Big Issue. 

Council services that provide support for people at risk of homelessness are rarely open in the evening or at weekends. So that first night on the outside he stayed with a friend. After that it was an uncle, then his nan. For weeks he was staying “here, there and everywhere”. 

“Realistically it’s hard because you feel like you’re under other people’s feet, you feel like you’re getting in the way,” he continued. “Sometimes I thought I’d rather be in prison than out here.”

After two weeks, Harrison’s probation officer referred him to housing and social justice charity Nacro, where he told them: “I’m in a situation now where I’m mixing with the wrong people. You want to go and settle down and start afresh, but you’ve got nowhere to go. You can end up with the wrong people.”

Around a third of prisoners are released on a Friday, but they are statistically more likely to reoffend than those released on any other day of the week. This is because charities and council services that offer housing, drug rehabilitation and mental health support often close for the weekend, leaving former inmates in the lurch. Former prisoners who are able to get safe accommodation are around 50 per cent less likely to reoffend.

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“If you’re released on a Friday, you’ve got Friday, Saturday and Sunday when you can’t do nothing,” said Harrison, now 35. “I know people that will go take drink, drugs, they’ve got nothing to do, and they’ll be back in prison on Monday.”

“Too many women are being released from prison into homelessness, running the risk of reoffending to get through the weekend,” added Lizzy Jewell, head of communications at Working Chance, a charity for women with convictions. 

They need to be supported as soon as possible, to give them “the best chance to restart their lives and move away from the criminal justice system,” she continued. 

But a new law means no more former convicts will spend their first day on the outside with just hours to find somewhere safe to sleep before the weekend. New legislation, brought to parliament by Tory MP Simon Fell and backed by Big Issue founder and crossbench peer Lord Bird, will bring forward prison release dates by up to two days if it falls on a Friday or the day before a bank or public holiday.

After more than three years of campaigning, the Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Bill has been given Royal Assent, giving custody-leavers a better shot at getting the support they need to reintegrate into society. 

Lord Bird, founder of the Big Issue and crossbench peer, said: “This Bill will help a significant number of people leave prison without being vulnerable because they leave on a day, not a Friday, when support services are available to see people over the weekend. 

“This Bill feeds into part of my preventative agenda, so that people leaving prison are more likely to be prevented from getting back into trouble because there is a safety net for them in those crucial days following being de-institutionalised,” he continued. 

MP Simon Fell, who brought the bill to parliament, said the bill will “cut reoffending rates, reduce the pressure on prisons, and cut levels of crime.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of Nacro, called on organisations in the prison sector to now “work to ensure prison governors make good use of this power to help people who are leaving prison. This will all serve to help give people the best chance at a second chance, and reduce reoffending.”

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However, not everything can be fixed by changing a prisoners’ release date. 

“The issues run a lot deeper than the day you’re released,” said Harrison. “There should be stuff in place for when you come out, it shouldn’t be for you to find yourself and it should be funded.”

Alongside a shortage of prison staff that has left many feeling unable to carry out vital rehabilitation work with prisoners, British prisons have a long way to go to give people with convictions the best possible shot at life on the outside. 

This new legislation, at least, is a start.

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

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