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Housing

Women are asking to stay in prison beyond their sentence because they don’t have a home to go to

The majority of women leaving HMP Bronzefield – Europe’s largest women’s prison – fall into homelessness, with some preferring prison to the “uncertainties of freedom”.

Two thirds of inmates leaving Europe’s largest women’s prison are being released into homelessness – and many are reluctant to leave.

An HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) report found “far too many” inmates at HMP Bronzefield in Ashford, Surrey – the largest women’s prison in the UK – left without safe and sustainable accommodation available for at least 12 weeks. 

Inspectors discovered that many women said they would prefer to stay inside rather than face the “uncertainties of freedom”. One inmate even slept in the prison’s gatehouse for two nights because she had nowhere to go.

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The report concluded finding suitable accommodation alongside support for women with complex needs must be a priority for authorities and probation services and warned staffing cuts in domestic abuse support and the prison’s resettlement team exacerbated the issue. 

Charlie Taylor, HMIP’s chief inspector of prisons, said: “Without stable, safe accommodation many women are liable to have mental health relapses, return to substance misuse and become involved in crime on release, creating more victims and, at great cost to the taxpayer, repeating the cycle and undoing the good work of the prison.”

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Overall, inspectors described the prison as “well run” and praised encouraging findings in education. The report found access to the prison’s library was “good” and the provision was “excellent” with a survey of prisoners revealing more prisoners had a positive view of the library than other prisons.

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Almost three-quarters of prisoners who were identified as having a mental health condition were being decently cared for, inspectors said, with mental health services described as “responsive” and providing a “good range of interventions”.

HMP Bronzefield prison
The number of inmates at HMP Bronzefield falling into homelessness “let down” the progress prison chiefs had made elsewhere. Image: David Squire / Geograph

But they concluded this progress was undermined by the prison’s release strategy, which left women at risk of reoffending and becoming trapped in a cycle of homelessness.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of social justice charity Nacro, said the findings show HMP Bronzefield is “delaying homelessness, not ending it”.

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“The idea that there are women who are reluctant to leave prison due to a lack of safe housing is a heart-breaking failure. Nobody should leave prison without somewhere safe to live,” said Robb.

“The government has committed to finding accommodation for women leaving prison for 12 weeks. But this report shows there needs to be support for long-term move on accommodation or we simply risk delaying homelessness, not ending it.

Robb also questioned short-term prison sentences for women. He added: “When we know short sentences don’t work and the impact of prison on women is so severe, we should be asking why we are locking them up in the first place.”

Meanwhile, Dr Jenny Earle from the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative, said the report brings wider systemic failures into focus.

A report published by the Public Accounts Committee last month found the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had failed to prioritise its female offender strategy.

“The issue of women prisoners being released into various kinds of homelessness has been a running sore for years,” said Dr Earle. “The government is presiding over systemic failure which continues to see vulnerable women released from custody with nothing but a small discharge grant and a plastic bag; this ruinous system sets them up for failure and leaves them vulnerable to harm and to reoffending.

“Ministers say they realise that preventing homelessness among prison leavers is the first step to recovery and rehabilitation – when will they actually do something about it?”

A MoJ spokesperson said: “We are preventing homelessness by providing temporary accommodation to prison leavers without a home to go to as part of our £550 million plans to cut crime and we’ve already seen the rate of prisoners homeless on release fall by 28 per cent.”

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