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18 March 2015

Temporary release changes are undermining prisoners’ rehabilitation

Disproportionate restrictions on the temporary release of prisoners are undermining opportunities for effective resettlement and rehabilitation and leading to growing frustration and resentment behind bars, a new report by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

For many people in prison, particularly those who are serving long sentences, the chance to experience ROTL and open prison conditions are a pivotal part of the process of rehabilitation. They allow people to take responsibility through work and volunteering, establish contact with families and sort out housing needs; factors which contribute to their safe management and supervision in the community on release.

Less than 1% of releases on temporary licence fail and, of these, only 6.1% involve an arrestable offence. This is the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 releases. Rates of absconds from prisons have fallen by 83% from 1,301 in 2003-04 to 225 in 2013-14.

The government is conducting a review into ROTL following three tragic incidents involving people on temporary release in the summer of 2013 and a small number of high profile absconds from open prisons in 2014. Interim measures, including a more stringent risk assessment and tighter monitoring arrangements, have been put in place and a revised ROTL policy is expected to be introduced in early February 2015.

Since the start of the ROTL review, people in prison in contact with the Prison Reform Trust have reported increasing delays in obtaining access to open conditions and permission for temporary release, and mounting frustration at being denied opportunities to progress their sentences. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of inquiries to the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service regarding ROTL has tripled.

One prisoner said:

“Prisoners are simply not getting out at all to be tested in the community. With other cutbacks there is simply no resettlement taking place … This is going to impact on Parole Board decisions and indeterminate sentenced prisoners are going to be detained even longer in prison, increasing the financial impact.”

Figures released last week by the Ministry of Justice reveal a fall of nearly one quarter in the number of temporary releases authorised since 2013. Between July and September 2014, there were 108,877 releases on temporary licence from prisons in England and Wales; a decrease of 23% since the same time the previous year.

People serving life and other indeterminate sentences have been particularly affected by the introduction of the new measures. Figures show that the number of individuals serving life sentences given at least one instance of ROTL has fallen by 40% since 2013 while the number serving all forms of indeterminate sentence has fallen by 34%. This compares to a fall of 29% for all prisoners.

The briefing raises concerns that tighter restrictions on the use of ROTL could lead to an underuse of the open prison estate and pressure from ministers to close open prisons to save money.

The latest prison population statistics suggest a growing problem of spare capacity in the open estate at a time when the majority of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded and the prison population is rising. Sole designated category D establishments for which population figures are available are currently operating below normal accommodation levels, with an average occupancy rate (calculated as the percentage of population to in use CNA) of less than 85%.

Last week, the government announced the temporary closure for “refurbishment” of the male open prison HMP Blantyre House. The last remaining designated female open prisons, HMP East Sutton Park and HMP Askham Grange, are also slated for closure.

The report highlights concerns regarding the fairness and proportionality of the new measures and their disproportionate impact on women, people with learning disabilities and difficulties and older prisoners, who are likely to find it more difficult to obtain ROTL under the changes.

It says there is little evidence that its expansion of compulsory electronic monitoring to people on ROTL is necessary or represents an effective use of taxpayers’ money. In the financial year 2010/11, around 116,000 people were monitored in total. The new ROTL policy will expand electronic monitoring to an additional estimated 1,200 people a year.

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Release on temporary licence and experience of open conditions play a vital role in the safe management and supervision of offenders in the community. Disproportionate restrictions on their use will mean fewer people in prison take responsibility and gain the skills they need to lead a law abiding life on release.

“A sensible process of gradual re-entry and being tested in the community has to be better than just opening the iron gates of a closed prison at the end of a long sentence.”