“NO FIXED abode” is no place for the thousands of women who are released from prison by a “shocking” system that sets up the vulnerable to fail, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, has said.
The Bishop, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop on prisons, was the lead signatory of an open letter sent to the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, on Tuesday. It states that 60 per cent of women are being released from prison without secure long-term housing, and are thus at risk.
This is higher than the 40 per cent stated by the Ministry of Justice, the letter says. “We believe that either number is shocking and could be prevented by joined-up working across departments, and with local authorities and partner organisations.”
The letter was signed by 60 cross-party MPs and peers, including the former Bishop for Prisons, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff. It continues: “A lack of safe, supported and permanent accommodation puts vulnerable women at risk and makes it near impossible for them to turn their lives around, seek help for harmful behaviours such as substance abuse, and gain positive physical and mental health.
“This also acts as a significant barrier to rehabilitation; 65 per cent of prison leavers released to no fixed abode go on to reoffend.”
Bishop Treweek said on Tuesday: “It is shocking that thousands of women each year leave prison without anywhere safe and secure to live or the support they need. Without safe and supported housing, we cannot expect vulnerable women to turn their lives around. At present, we are quite simply setting them up to fail.
“This crisis is entirely preventable but we need urgent, well-funded, cross-Government action to address this issue. I implore the Government to adopt the measures outlined in our letter today to ensure that no vulnerable woman leaves prison to No Fixed Abode.”
In February, the Ministry of Justice awarded £20 million to the Prison Leavers Project, as part of the Government’s £220-million package to reduce crime. It is being piloted in five of the 12 probation regions; but the letter urges the Ministry to roll it out across England and Wales, with specific measures to support the needs of vulnerable women prisoners.
It also calls on the Government to support women in finding long-term safe and secure accommodation beyond the 12 weeks of temporary accommodation provided by the service, and to review the effectiveness of the “duty to refer” under the Homelessness Reduction Act with respect to vulnerable women leaving prison.
The co-ordinator of the London Prisons Mission and representative of the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative, John Plummer, described the current practice as a failure of the justice system.
“It is ludicrous that we expect women released from prison with just a discharge grant and a plastic bag to achieve rehabilitation and rebuild their lives. Condemning vulnerable women prison-leavers to homelessness traps them in a cycle of reoffending and abuse.” Current government measures were “inadequate” and unsuitable for the complex needs of women, he said.
In April, the Commons Justice Select Committee launched an inquiry into women in prison, which will study the higher reporting of housing concerns among women prison-leavers, among other issues.
A government spokesman told the Telegraph on Tuesday: “Having a safe and secure place to stay reduces reoffending, which is why we provide temporary accommodation on release and have invested £200 million in rehabilitation support, including specialist women’s services.”