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26 September 2016

No home, no chance. A lack of housing is stopping women from turning their lives around on release

Six in 10 women do not have homes to go to on release from prison, a report published today by the Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison has found.

Home truths: housing for women in the criminal justice system, says that the failure to solve a chronic shortage of suitable housing options for women who offend leads to more crime, more victims and more unnecessary and expensive imprisonment.

6,700 women were released from prison in England and Wales in the year to March 2016.

Without stable housing, it is harder for women to engage in employment and training, access support services, re-establish contact with children and families, and integrate successfully into the community. Inadequate provision of appropriate and safe accommodation increases the risk of reoffending.

Ministry of Justice figures show that 45% of women are reconvicted within one year of leaving prison. This rises to 58% for those on sentences of less than 12 months.

The report reveals a lack of clarity and consistency about responsibility for the housing of women offenders. It found limited suitable accommodation options for women, especially those with additional vulnerabilities such as substance misuse, mental health problems, and domestic abuse.

Research suggests that women are more likely than men to lose their accommodation whilst in custody with around a third of women in prison losing their homes. The report found that women in prison were not being given enough advice and support to keep their tenancies.

The report echoes concerns raised by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in a recent inspection of HMP Bronzefield, as well as the Communities and Local Government select committee inquiry into homelessness. At Bronzefield, inspectors found staff were providing women with tents and sleeping bags due to a lack of suitable accommodation for them to go to on release.

A support worker quoted in the report from the charity Women in Prison said: “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.”

Women in trouble with the law may find themselves declared intentionally homeless by local authorities, deemed ineligible for housing, or cut off from housing benefit and evicted for rent arrears whilst in custody.

Women are imprisoned further from their homes than men on average, and can experience greater difficulty in establishing a local connection to an area—often a precondition for local authority housing.

While the statutory and policy frameworks differ in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, housing for women in the criminal justice system is a major problem across the UK. In Northern Ireland, for instance, an estimated 60% of women prisoners have no home to go to on their release.

The report says action is needed to ensure women in prison receive timely advice and information about their housing options and support to apply for housing and to sustain tenancies.  Effective interagency communication and partnership between housing providers, women’s prisons, probation services and local authorities is essential.

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

“A tent and a sleeping bag are no answer to meeting the housing needs of women on release. Safe, secure accommodation is crucial in breaking that cycle of crime, and all the harm it causes to our communities, to victims, to the women involved and to their families. This report highlights the links between poor housing and bad outcomes for women and profiles ways in which local authorities, housing providers, the prison and probation service can work together to ensure women get the help they need to stay out of trouble.”

Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of Women in Prison, said:

“It’s an absolute battlefield for women who are leaving prison homeless to find even temporary accommodation for that first night. We know of women who are in and out of prison just for a roof over their heads and that the housing crisis is keeping reoffending rates high. Implementing the recommendations in this report would help enable women to take control of their lives and move forward, making an enormous difference to thousands of children, lift the pressure on the courts and prison service and save millions of pounds wasted on counterproductive custodial sentences.”

Download the full report by clicking here.

The report was discussed on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which you can listen to by clicking here.

Jenny Earle, Programme Director for Reducing Women’s Imprisonment at Prison Reform Trust, also wrote for Huffington Post, which you can read by clicking here.