Housing

Homeless man asks to be sent to jail for a bed and a meal. It happens more often than you'd think

It is not as unusual as you might think for someone with no other alternative but to sleep on the streets to request going to prison

Prison is no picnic - but for some rough sleepers, it at least provides a 'safe' place to stay. Image credit: Piqsels

Image credit: Piqsels

It’s normal for a lawyer to urge a judge to send an offender to jail. But it’s not usually the defendant’s own solicitor.

On 18 November, a lawyer in Shropshire asked the court to lock up his homeless client.

“He wants to be sent to prison because the alternative is being let out on the streets in late November/early December when it’s cold and wet,” James Ashton, mitigating for Scott Mills, told Kidderminster Magistrates Court. “Please send him to prison.”

Mills breached a behaviour order banning him from entering Whitchurch in Shropshire, visiting his mother’s house in a deliberate attempt to be sent to jail.

“When pressures get too much he has taken the decision to breach the order by going to Mum’s,” the lawyer said. “He knows police will be called and he will be arrested.” Mills’ subsequent night in the cells gave him a chance to eat and sleep on a “relatively comfortable bed,” Ashton said. The magistrate imposed a 16-week jail term.

In October, the English and Welsh prison population reached an all-time high of 88,225 people – just 557 short of its operational capacity. A succession of reports have slammed conditions in these overcrowded and dangerous institutions.

But, despite this state of affairs, it is perhaps not as unusual as you might think for someone with no other alternative but to sleep on the streets to request going to prison.

With a dearth of support available – and private housing increasingly competitive – rough sleepers are forced to become “ever more inventive” to secure a roof over their heads, says barrister Nick Bano. Bano specialises in representing homeless people in public and private law disputes.

“It’s really awful that someone would consider prison as an alternative to street homelessness, given the horrendous overcrowding and staffing conditions in prisons,” he said. “But that’s the situation we find ourselves in.”

In 2010 – some of the most recent research that exists – a Sheffield Hallam University survey of 400 people living on the streets found that 30% had committed a minor crime with the intention of being taken into custody for the night.

It’s even harder for former offenders to break the cycle of prison and homelessness

Once people are in jail, it’s even harder to break the cycle. According to the prison service’s 2022-23 annual report, the main reason that people are “recalled” to jail is “non-compliance with licence conditions” stemming from “homelessness and/or relapse into substance misuse”.

“There was a lack of continuity of care before and after release, which led to prison leavers not being able to access the right levels of support to sustain their resettlement,” the report found.

Under these conditions, “committing a minor offence” to go back to jail might seem like the best option, said Campbell Robb, chief executive of housing and social justice support charity Nacro.

“[It is] a truly depressing situation and a wasted opportunity to help people coming out of prison change their lives for the better,” he said.

In 2020, the prison service surveyed prisoners who found themselves in this situation.

“I kept reoffending to get put back inside as I couldn’t get accommodation,” one man told inspectors.  

“People come out of jail and commit crime to go back to jail ’cause they feel safer in jail,” another added.

“It’s easier inside than outside,” one former offender admitted. “I was begging them not to put me back out on the street, but they said if I didn’t leave the cell I would be forcefully removed.”

In 2017, Middlesbrough local Bradley Grimes – who is autistic and became homeless after leaving the care system aged 17 – asked a court to send him to jail. “That’s the last option I had, that I could think of,” he told the BBC. “You don’t have to worry about anything [in jail].” Grimes now sells The Big Issue.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said that the government was investing to support prison leavers.

“We know stable housing helps ex-offenders stay on the straight and narrow which is why we’re investing millions to provide temporary accommodation for those at risk of becoming homeless on release – preventing them from falling back into a life of crime and keeping the public safe,” they said.

It’s “incredibly sad” that being locked up under such “terrible” conditions could appeal to anyone, Bano added.

“For the housing crisis to get so bad that someone opts for prison says a lot about where we are.”

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