People leaving prison with nowhere to go are planning to commit crimes just so they can get a roof over their heads again. How do we break out of this cycle, asks Ellie Groves
We have to ask what prison is for before we can understand how to be ‘tough on crime’. Why do we lock people up? Is it to enact justice, to keep dangerous people off the streets or to be a deterrent – something so awful it actively stops people from offending.
The Independent Monitoring Board for Thameside prison in Woolwich recently found that nearly half of the inmates facing imminent release are already planning on reoffending so they have somewhere to go, because a lack of ‘good hostel accommodation’ near them means they have nowhere to live.
It seems as though currently the United Kingdom is failing at all three objectives, especially for those most in need in our society.
The first, to enact justice. In the context of homeless people committing a crime so they can have a bed, where is this justice? Perhaps, there is a singular justice for the crime they commit. But where is the justice in a society which forces people to stand in front of a judge just to get a roof over their head? This seem an all too narrow view, justice for that simple crime might be carried out – but in the long-term, what does this achieve?
Arguably the middle objective might be carried out – dangerous people are put in prison, yes. But as the report found that people were actively seeking to carry out crimes for the simple purpose of having somewhere to sleep, so they can get a bed at night. A homeless person does not equate to being a dangerous person. To drive someone to commit a crime simply so they have a safe place to rest their head at night says something about our society, what it does not say is that the person is inherently dangerous.
The last, to act as a deterrent. This seems to speak for itself: when the government and society treats its citizens so badly that prison is a better option, prison is no longer a deterrent.
This report touches on an issue long known to those working with anyone who faced going to prison. One of the most powerful stories I saw was from an all-women charitable theatre company, Clean Break. It told stories by women who had been in prison of their experience of exiting and finally being free: they leave the prison entrance with a new lease of life, only to be met with the same street they were in before, the same dealer on the corner, the same cold hard floor welcoming them as a mattress and the same computers saying no. No to a job. No to a house. No to a chance.
This issue is two-fold. On the one hand those exiting prison have no one waiting for them at the gate. As more and more people are locked up for small amounts of time this cycle will continue. And to compound this, the number of rough sleepers, especially in cities, is rising. More people in sleeping bags, with empty coffee cups and a sense of abandonment. So as we hear of overcrowded prisons, an unquenchable drug culture and prison wardens at breaking point, is the best solution we can come up with to lock more homeless people up?
But what can be done? Locking people up, putting them in the revolving door of the prison system is not working and clearly nor is shutting down homeless shelters. How we treat those at the bottom of society matters. When the lord chief justice, John Thomas, stated that more criminals should be given community sentences instead of being jailed for non-violent crime he touched on a key solution often supported by those working in the justice sector.
But this does not break the chain entirely. This does not help halt the ever-growing number of homeless men, women and children living on the street – to do that there needs to be better housing supply and access to education and jobs.
Ensuring that those who commit petty crimes are not just locked up, installing effective rehabilitation schemes and making sure there is someone to welcome ex-offenders as they leave prison is paramount to starting to fix the prison system. But key to making real change is providing homes to stop the incentive of going to prison in the first place. Like so many other areas of government crime, punishment, justice and prisons cannot be looked at as an isolated policy area. In doing so up to this point, this Conservative government has driven our justice system into the ground and thrown people out on to the street along with it. For the sake of those working in prisons, for those on the street and for the whole of society, this must change.
Ellie Groves is chair of the Young Fabians. She tweets at @EllieRuthGroves
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