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14 June 2018

Lack of housing traps women in cycle of offending

A chronic shortage of housing support for women released from custody is driving them back to prison, according to a report published today by the Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison.

Home truths: housing for women in the criminal justice system, found that while in-prison housing support should be an integral part of preparing for release, it is often last-minute, with some women unsure on the morning of their release if they will have accommodation that evening.

“We are aware of a woman who had been imprisoned for theft, subsequently released homeless, was recalled for breach of Anti-Social Behaviour Order for sleeping in a park and then later released homeless again.”

Support worker, Women in Prison

The most recent national data was published in 2008 and show that around six in 10 women do not have a home to go to on release from prison. However, following reforms to probation services, reliable national data on homelessness on release is no longer published. An increased women’s prison population and pressure on social housing means that the true scale of the problem may be even greater.

A lack of stable accommodation makes it harder for women to secure employment or training, arrange benefits, and re-establish contact with children and families. Many women become trapped in an ongoing cycle of offending, struggling to meet their licence conditions, committing further crimes out of critical need, or in some cases returning to custody in a bid to avoid homelessness. As one woman quoted in the report says, “Without it you don’t have a chance.”

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of women sent to custody to serve a sentence in England and Wales in 2017 were serving six months or less—some 4,000 women. A short prison sentence dramatically increases the risk of homelessness as benefit payments are stopped and rent arears accrue, with research showing that women are more likely than men to lose a tenancy when they enter prison. Helping women retain their tenancy while in custody for short periods is simple and cost-effective but rarely done.

The problem has been exacerbated following the extension of mandatory supervision on release from custody for people serving short sentences. The change has disproportionate affected women. The number of women recalled to custody following their release has increased by 127% since the new measures were introduced, compared to a 14% rise for men.

As the female prison population is smaller, and women’s prisons more geographically dispersed, they are also often held far from their local community, limiting opportunities to liaise with relevant housing organisations and meet eligibility criteria. This creates challenges for prison staff, who are expected to deal with a large number and spread of local authorities with often inconsistent policies.

Reports on women’s prisons by HM Inspectorate of Prisons indicate that, where prison staff are able to identify women’s needs at an early stage, and have strong links with accommodation providers and other specialist services, women are more likely to be released into settled accommodation, increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes. But research has shown that many people in prison do not know of the existence of such services and, of those that do, very few actually access this support.

While changes introduced by the Homelessness Reduction Act are welcome, the report makes recommendations to both prevent women from losing their homes, and provide greater support for those who are homeless. Extending the time limit for housing benefit eligibility to maintain tenancies; increasing suitable accommodation for women leaving prison; and improving access to universal credit, housing advice and financial support services would allow women to focus on turning their lives around, instead of worrying where they will sleep that night.

Commenting, Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, said:

“Unless women’s housing needs are met the system is setting them up to fail. With no home and limited access to money, it’s unsurprising that so many women struggle to turn their lives around. Without practical help with the basics even a short prison sentence can have profound long-term consequences for women.”

“The appointment of David Gauke as Secretary of State for Justice, a former minister at HM Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, and the recently announced cross-government Ministerial group, present an ideal opportunity to create much needed links and improve the lives of women and their communities.”