Ending homelessness for women on release is vital to cut cycle of reoffending

Blog from Sandra Fieldhouse. Sandra leads on the inspection of women’s prisons for HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

Today’s inspection report into HMP/YOI Bronzefield reflects a recurring theme across women’s prisons – too many prisoners are being released into the community without a suitable place to live.

The consequences for individuals, for the prison system, and for wider society are huge. A woman living on the streets, or being passed from pillar to post in temporary or unsuitable accommodation, is far more likely to reoffend and to fall back into the vicious cycle that got her into prison in the first place.

For some prisoners, this pattern appears to be an accepted fact. Only last year, during an inspection, we were told that one woman released some days earlier had left her personal belongings at the prison for safe keeping because she expected to be returning soon.

At Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in Europe with capacity for about 500 people, almost two-thirds left the establishment without a safe, suitable and sustainable place to live for more than 12 weeks.

This is shocking but not unusual. Indeed, the prison’s leadership is to be congratulated for putting resources into producing reliable data in order to understand the true extent of the problem. The truth is that we don’t know with sufficient accuracy across the wider prison service how many women are released into suitable accommodation or not, and even Bronzefield struggled to capture data on the outcomes of women who were bailed by the courts after a period of remand. Had these figures been included, I suspect the picture would be even worse.

In February, the Chief Inspector highlighted the issue of women being released without suitable accommodation in a briefing paper based on inspections of five other prisons in the previous six months.

We identified the lack of housing as “a critical risk factor” and said that unreliable data made it impossible to know how many women were affected.

Resettlement problems exist in the men’s estate too. But we know that women in prison have distinct needs, making the provision of suitable accommodation on release so important.

Many women in prison have been victims of domestic violence and other personal trauma, and our survey results show that women are more likely than men to declare mental health and substance misuse problems on arrival into custody.

And the problem on release is not just about the availability of accommodation, but the suitability of what is on offer. Women often tell us that they turn down some options because of safety concerns – such as a hostel shared with men. Some women have suffered a history of domestic violence and are left with an impossible choice between returning to live with an abusive partner or sleeping on the streets.

The shortage of suitable accommodation for women on release is often compounded by under-resourced resettlement teams in prisons. At Bronzefield, at the time of our inspection, only four out of 10 workers were in post and, despite 90% of the women coming from London, their resettlement provider was from a different probation area.

Clearly, these issues reflect a national problem and the government’s Female Offender Strategy has made a series of commitments. We now need to see action to support women on release to find suitable accommodation to help change lives and keep our communities safe.